Free Markets, Free People
James Joyner wonders:
To my non-economist mind, that sounds eerily remniscient of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion plan passed last October to prop up the frozen financial system by buying, well, troubled assets. Granting, arguendo, that the Bush administration, which ran the first part of TARP, was evil and incompetent and the Obama administration is all sweetness, light, and omniscience, why would this work any better the second time around?
Paul Krugman, as we noted last week, is not impressed by this plan at all:
This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair.
After all, we’ve just been through the firestorm over the A.I.G. bonuses, during which administration officials claimed that they knew nothing, couldn’t do anything, and anyway it was someone else’s fault. Meanwhile, the administration has failed to quell the public’s doubts about what banks are doing with taxpayer money.
And now Mr. Obama has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they’re doing.
It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street. And by the time Mr. Obama realizes that he needs to change course, his political capital may be gone.
Krugman goes on to discuss the economics of the situation and a relatively easy way to solve the banking problem. Probably one of the more striking lines in his discussion is:
But the Obama administration, like the Bush administration, apparently wants an easier way out.
This speaks to a theory we’ve all discussed about certain aspects of the job of president in which Barack Obama displays very little interest. From his chuckling though his “punch drunk” interview with Steve Frost yesterday on “60 Minutes” (an invitation to view him as unserious about the crisis) to his seeking an easy and fast solution to the banking crisis, it seems that this is one of those areas which holds little interest for him. He wants it dealt with as quickly as possible (or at least seemingly dealt with so it is at least off of the front pages) so he can move on to his real interest – his costly social agenda.
Anyway, read all of the Krugman critique.
Brad DeLong thinks Krugman may be wrong and lists 3 reasons why:
1. The half empty-half full factor: I see the Geithner Plan as a positive step from where we are. Paul seed it as an embarrassingly inadequate bandaid.
2. Politics: I think Obama has to demonstrate that he has exhausted all other options before he has a prayer of getting Voinovich to vote to close debate on a bank nationalization bill. Paul thinks that the longer Obama delays proposing bank nationalization the lower it’s chances become.
3. I think the private-sector players in financial markets right now are highly risk averse–hence assets are undervalued from the perspective of a society or a government that is less risk averse. Paul judges that assets have low values beceuse they are unlikely to pay out much cash.
While it is nice to be optimistic, it is also important to be realistic. Frankly I think DeLong’s optimism isn’t realistic in the face of this particular crisis and I’m inclined to believe the Krugman critique to be more “spot on”. I have no confidence that this plan will solve the problem.
One of the problems the administration faces which is above and beyond the “workability” of the plan itself is related to the AIG bonus blowup in Congress. Private investors are gunshy about participating – for good reason:
The backlash on Capitol Hill means private firms may think twice about taking part in Geithner’s public-private partnership, even though government financing will limit their risk and increase the potential of earning profits, said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer of Cumberland Advisors Inc., in Vineland, New Jersey.
“We expect that the participation in the program to be announced this coming week will be tepid at best” because of “fear that any action which puts them into the federal assistance plan will subject them to the chance of retroactive punishment and taxation,” Kotok said.
A real “chilling effect” given Congressional and adminstration overreaction to the bonus situation. Reports are Obama is cooling to the idea of retroactive taxation, but, right or wrong, there is still going to be a demand for some sort of action. We’ll see what sort of leadership Obama tries to exert concerning those bonuses if any.
So much for I only knew about this last Tuesday”. And this was the guy Democrats said we had to have beceause his brilliance was such that we should over-look his tax problems?
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told CNN Thursday his department asked Sen. Chris Dodd to include a loophole in the stimulus bill that allowed bailed-out insurance giant American International Group to keep its bonuses.
In an interview with CNN’s Ali Velshi, Geithner said the Treasury Department was particularly concerned the government would face lawsuits if bonus contracts were breached.
Geithner told Velshi Thursday he takes full responsibility for the situation.
After spending most of a week denying he even knew about it prior to last week. I don’t think Geithner understands what taking “full responsiblity” really means (or should mean). Oh, and see Goodwin’s quote below.
Disgust is a bi-partisan concept. Michael Goodwin again:
Ronald Reagan’s famous line that “government is the problem” kept going through my head as the AIG hearing demonstrated the dangers of Washington’s role in the economy. The very people, Republicans and Democrats alike, who can’t balance America’s budget now claim the expertise to run banks, insurance companies and automakers.
If we let them, we’re dumber than they are.
If you are inclined to accept without question that the bonuses paid to AIG employees deserve unmitigated moral indignation, as Pres. Obama and the Democrats seem to, then shouldn’t that opprobrium cut across the board? Well, I guess some animals are more equal than others:
At least four Fannie Mae executives are slated to receive more than $400,000 in bonuses each this year as a result of the company’s government-approved retention program, The Post’s Zach Goldfarb reports.
The executives include chief operating officer Michael Williams ($611,000), deputy chief financial officer David Hisey ($517,000), and executive vice presidents Thomas Lund ($470,000) and Kenneth Bacon ($470,000).
Each of these executives earned about $200,000 in retention payments last year and salaries ranging from $385,000 to $676,000.
According to the report, such bonuses are doled out depending on how integral the employee is to the companies, as approved by the FHFA:
Fannie Mae, which suffered $59 billion in losses last year, has requested $15 billion in taxpayer assistance, and has said it expects to need plenty more.
All major compensation decisions are authorized by Fannie Mae’s federal regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which created a retention program when the company was seized last September to hold on to key employees.
Under the program, employees are eligible to receive up to 150 percent of their salary in bonuses this year, but many will receive far less than that, and some might receive zero, depending on how central they are deemed to the company’s task.
Congressman Barney Frank, one of Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s biggest supporters, and Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee which oversees the institutions, was reached for comment and had this to say about whether paying retention bonuses was really necessary:
That’s nonsensical. It’s clear they made a lot of mistakes and we need to undo what they did. If they really understood what they did in the first place, seriously, they probably wouldn’t have done much of it. Secondly, when you are trying to undo something, it is often not the case that the people who did it are the ones to put in place. People are sometimes committed to not admitting mistakes. … So that argument I think is in fact almost counter, because the argument that you take the people who made the mistake and put them in charge of undoing the mistake goes against the human impulse not to admit a mistake.
Oops! Sorry, about that. The foregoing statement was from Barney Frank, but he was referring to AIG bonuses.
This morning, ThinkProgress sat down with Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), who chairs the House Financial Services Committee and has called for the firing of AIG executives. When asked to respond to Sorkin’s claim that only AIG employees can navigate the economy out of the mess they created, Frank dismissed it as “nonsensical”
Pigs in the House indeed.
I know this will come as a complete surprise, but some Democrats have been lying to you. But before we get to that, let’s review.
AIG was deemed dangerously insolvent a few months ago, so insolvent that it required the government to step in and save it. It was one of the “too big to fail” companies. It got TARP funds. Then, as a part of the “stimulus” bill, signed into law under the Obama administration, an attempt was made to add a provision to strictly limit such payments as those now causing the faux outrage:
Around the same time, Congress and Obama’s team were passing up an opportunity to put in place strict laws to revoke bonuses from recipients of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout. In February, the Senate voted to add such a proposal to the economic recovery bill that cleared Congress, but in final closed-door talks on the measure, that provision was dropped in favor of limits that affect only future payments.
“There was a lot of lobbying against it and it died,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who proposed the measure with Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine. He said Obama’s team is sending mixed messages on what will and won’t be tolerated on bonuses, with the president coming out strongly against excessive Wall Street rewards but top officials not following through.
“The president goes out and says this is not acceptable, and then some backroom deal gets cut to let these things get paid out anyway,” Wyden said. “They need to put this to bed once and for all.”
They also need to “put to bed once and for all” this nonsense that they “didn’t know” until a couple of days ago. And, of course, had anyone actually read the bill that they claimed was too important to delay, they’d have actually caught this, one assumes. But it appears, at least initially, that reading legislation before it is signed is just not a priority for this administration or Congress.
And surprise, surprise, we’re finding what they did pass sucks.
While administration officials insisted Tuesday that neither Obama nor Geithner learned of the impending bonus payments until last week, the problem wasn’t new. AIG’s plans to pay hundreds of millions of dollars were publicized last fall, when Congress started asking questions about expensive junkets the company had sponsored.
A November SEC filing by the company details more than $469 million in “retention payments” to keep prized employees.
Back then, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., began pumping Liddy for information on the bonuses and pressing him to scale them back.
“There was outrage brewing already,” Cummings said. “I’m saying (to Liddy), ‘Be a good citizen. … Do something about this.’ ”
Around the same time, outside lawyers hired by the Federal Reserve started reviewing the bonuses as part of a broader look at retention and compensation plans, according to government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The outside attorneys examined the possibility of making changes to the company plans — scaling them back, delaying them or rescinding them. They ultimately concluded that even if AIG’s bonuses were withheld, the company would probably be sued successfully by its employees and be forced to pay them, the officials said.
In January, Reps. Joseph E. Crowley of New York and Paul E. Kanjorski of Pennsylvania wrote to the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department pressing the administration to scrutinize AIG’s bonus plans and take steps against excessive payments.
“I at that point realized that we were going to have a backlash with regard to these bonuses,” Kanjorski said in an AP interview. In a meeting with Liddy later that month, he said he told the AIG chief that “all hell would break loose if we didn’t find a way to inform the public … and that we should take every step to put that information out there so we wouldn’t have the shock.”
And of course, Kanjorski is right. This is a “distraction”, as Rahm Emanuel is labeling it, that the administration could have avoided had the Treasury Secretary been on top of it and the President had exerted even a bit of leadership. Instead, both are in extreme cover-up mode. And as more and more info comes out, the time-line of events they issued has less and less credibility.
This wasn’t something that just emerged as a problem last Tuesday as Geithner is attempting to claim. This has been known and waved off for months. And that includes the provision that was going to be inserted in the “stimulus” package but died due to apparent Democratic lobbying.
Edward Liddy, CEO of AIG, has a piece in the Washington Post today. It is useful for a couple of reasons, one of which is to try to nail down the timeline in this dustup.
But first, this from another Washington Post article:
Senior White House officials said last night that President Obama did not learn that bonuses worth $165 million were to be paid to executives of American International Group until Thursday, one day before they were issued and two days after his Treasury secretary was informed that the payments were going forward.
A point or two to remember. One – $55 million had already been paid out under the very same plan in December of last year with little or no coverage. This wasn’t something new nor should it have been a surprise. This was a plan that was already in place and one has to assume, unless they weren’t doing their jobs, known to the appropriate people in the administration (not necessarily Obama, but at least Geithner).
That brings us back to the Liddy piece. Liddy joined AIG in September of 2008 to begin the difficult task of saving the insurance giant and structuring it so it was again profitable and able to pay the taxpayer funded bailout money back as quickly as possible. There’s a very telling paragraph in Liddy’s piece which makes the point that the plan which is such a huge surprise to the Treasury Secretary and President shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone:
To prevent undue risk exposure in the meantime, AIG has made a set of retention payments to employees based on a compensation system that prior management put in place. As has been reported, payments were made to employees in the Financial Products unit. Make no mistake, had I been chief executive at the time, I would never have approved the retention contracts that were put in place more than a year ago. It was distasteful to have to make these payments. But we concluded that the risks to the company, and therefore the financial system and the economy, were unacceptably high.
In the meantime, AIG has restructured its 2009 compensation system (note the use of the word “compensation” by Liddy and not “bonuses”) and made all the cuts and changes I noted yesterday.
The fact that this is just another part of the same plan that paid out $55 million last year without a peep, was in place, per Liddy prior to his assuming the Chairmanship and has been in place for at least a year strongly argues one of two things – A) someone is not telling the truth about when they “knew” this latest payment was going to take place or B) someone was not doing their job and is now trying to cover that up like a cat covering crap.
Obama aides defended Timothy F. Geithner’s handling of the situation yesterday, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs saying the president has “complete confidence” in the Treasury chief.
Sounds like a “heck of a job, Brownie” moment to me.
The other shoe concerning the AIG “bonuses” and the administration’s knowledge of them is beginning to drop. The Politico reports that all of the outrage from both Congressional and administrative officials is simply a front. All of them knew.
Watching the coverage the past 24 hours, it would seem AIG just made public its plans to give top employees big bonuses. Wrong.
AIG disclosed its retention-bonus program more than a year ago, including bonuses directed to those handling the exotic derivatives that got the company and the country into this mess.
The bonuses were essentially a nonissue when AIG got its initial bailout money, almost $150 billion under President Bush in the two months surrounding the presidential election. Joe Biden, then the vice presidential nominee, came out strongly against the bailout. Obama did not.
Timothy Geithner, then at the New York branch of the Federal Reserve, was a huge proponent and architect of the AIG bailout. So if Obama had strong private opposition to the idea it did not affect his pick for the person who would oversee all bailouts.
In fact, if you look at the first line in the letter AIG CEO Liddy wrote to Geithner, it is clear he at least knew about all of this before last Friday:
Thank you for the open and frank conversation on Wednesday regarding the compensation arrangements at AIG Financial Products and AIG generally. I admit that the conversation was a difficult one for me.
And there’s more:
You have also asked AIG to rethink our 2008 corporate bonus proposals. The proposals AIG originally submitted to you are part of a deliberate process, recommended by me and supported by the independent compensation committee of AIG’s board of directors.
So what you’re seeing out of the Obama administration is demagoguery at its worst. This was a plan being worked with the previous administration and the present administration, and when AIG payed those monies out last week Friday (they were required by law to do so prior to March 15), it was with the full knowledge and apparent acquiescence of the Obama administration, and, one assumes, key members of Congress.
As to the “why” of the situation, some reading of the AIGFP Employee Retention Plan – written last year - makes it clear that none of this was being hidden from anyone. And it makes for some very interesting reading – here, for instance, is the portion which details the impact of their failure to pay these “bonuses”:
Details Regarding Business Impact of Failure to Pay
AIGFP’s derivatives portfolio stands at about $1.6 trillion and remains a significant risk. Failure to pay the required retention payments therefore could have very significant business ramifications. For example, AIGFP is a party to derivative and structured transactions, guaranteed by AIG, that allow counterparties to terminate in the event of a “cross default” by AIGFP or AIG. A cross default in many of these transactions is defined as a failure by AIGFP to make one or more payments in an amount that exceeds a threshold of $25 million.
In the event a counterparty elects to terminate a transaction early, such transaction will be terminated at its replacement value, less any previously posted collateral. Due to current market conditions, it is not possible to reliably estimate the replacement cost of these transactions. However, the size of the portfolio with these types of provisions is in the several hundreds of billions of dollars and a cross-default in this portfolio could trigger other cross-defaults over the entire portfolio of AIGFP.
There are also substantial risks related to the hedging of AIGFP’s various books. Although we view the large-market risk books at AIGFP as generally well hedged, the hedging is dynamic – that is, it must be monitored and adjusted continuously. To the extent that AIGFP were to lose traders who currently oversee complicated though familiar positions and know how to hedge the book, gaps in hedging could result in significant losses. This is driven to some extent by the size of the portfolios. In the interest rate book, for example, a move in market interest rates of just one basis point – that is 0.01% or one-100th of one percent – could result in a change in value of $700 million dollars if the book were not hedged. It has virtually no impact on the hedged book. There are similar exposures in the foreign exchange, commodities and equity derivatives books.
AIGFP’s books also contain a significant number of complex – so-called bespoke – transactions that are difficult to understand and manage. This is one reason replacing key traders and risk managers would not be practical on a large scale. Personal knowledge of the trades and the unique systems at AIGFP will be critical to an effective unwind of AIGFP’s businesses and portfolios.
In this current environment, any perceived disruption in AIGFP’s ability to conduct business, such as one that would result from the departure of a number of key employees, could also cause parties to limit or cease trading with AIGFP. Obviously, this would adversely affect its ability to continue to cost-effectively hedge its positions.
Departures also have regulatory ramifications. As an example, the resignation of the senior managers of AIGFP’s Banque AIG subsidiary would allow the Commission Bancaire, the French banking regulator, to appoint its own designee to step in and manage Banque AIG. Such an appointment would constitute an event of default under Banque AIG’s derivative and structured transactions, including the regulatory capital CDS book ($234 billion notional amount as of December 31, 2008), and potentially cost tens of billions of dollars in unwind costs. Although it is difficult to assess the likelihood of such regulatory action, at a minimum the disruption associated with significant departures related to a failure to honor contractual obligations would require intensive interactions with regulators and other constituents (rating agencies, counterparties, etc.) to assure them of the ongoing viability of AIGFP as well its commitment to honoring counterparty contracts and claims.
Essentially, as I pointed out this morning, the loss of key players could cost AIG and the taxpayer much, much more than the bonuses. Note the final paragraph where an example is used to point out the danger of seeing key players leave the firm while it continues to “unwind costs”. As pointed out the “personal” knowledge of the trades and transactions is critical. This isn’t necessarily about the “brightest and best”, but instead about those who know where the bodies are buried, how they got there and how to get them out of there and where they’re supposed to be. The possible downside of losing these key individuals is a potential cost of “tens of billions” to the tax payers.
Here’s something else which may interest you:
AIG has taken significant steps to limit overall compensation at AIGFP where it can and has committed to doing more. The 25 highest paid active contract employees have agreed to reduce their remaining 2009 salaries to $1. Salaries for this group ranged up to $500,000, and the average salary was in excess of $270,000. (There are apparently legal limits that may complicate the implementation of this and AIG will likely implement the lowest salary levels we can equitably put in place across the relevant jurisdictions.) The remaining 2009 salary of all other officers – anyone with a title of associate vice president or higher – is being reduced by 10% (subject to compliance with local law requirements).
In addition, other forms of non-cash compensation will be reduced or eliminated. We also believe that there will be considerably greater flexibility to reduce contractual payments in respect of 2009, and AIG intends to use its best efforts to do so. AIGFP intends to sell some of its books of business during the year. The employees related to these books will go with the sold businesses, and we intend to require the buyer to assume going-forward compensation payments.
It is also expected that, over the course of the year, employees will leave voluntarily or be terminated for cause and will therefore no longer be entitled to retention amounts from AIG. Because the plan was designed to provide security for employees, including protection against terminations without cause, AIG is required to pay the amounts owed to employees who are downsized. However, if a downsized employee finds new employment, retention amounts will be reduced by the earnings from the other employer. In addition, for employees in foreign jurisdictions who are not U.S. taxpayers, to whom the limits of Section 409A do not apply, AIG will have the ability to negotiate with employees who are downsized.
With all of these actions and other creative restructuring solutions, AIG hereby commits to use best efforts to reduce expected 2009 retention payments by at least 30%.
To review, the 25 highest paid contract employees are on a $1 a year salary for 2009. 10% salary reduction for all other officers. Non-cash compensation – reduced or eliminated. Selling some of it’s “books”. Downsizing. Retention payments for 2009 reduced by 30%.
As to the payouts themselves, this information is available:
Of the $220 million, about $165 million is required to be paid on or prior to March 15, 2009 and about $55 million was previously paid. In light of the large losses incurred last year, current and former employees will see their deferred compensation accounts reduced to the point where they will have negative balances. As a consequence there is no immediate prospect that employees will receive any payout of the at-risk piece for 2008 (about $93 million) or the remaining approximately $582 million in at risk pay earned from prior years. A senior AIGFP manager therefore worked in 2008 for about 43% of his 2007 expected level.
Did you ever hear about any of that in the phony cacophony that has blown up around all of this? AIG apparently had a plan, one has to assume it wasn’t one done in the dark, and it appears they were literally in the middle of executing it ($55 million having been paid last year and some more millions to be paid after March 15). The plan outlines how AIG planned to cut its costs while fulfilling the remaining contractual obligations they had. You and I may not like the fact that the bonuses are going out there, but if you take the time to read the retention plan, you can understand that there is a legal and financial reason for doing so.
All of this faux outrage, then, is politically calculated theater designed, as usual, to shift blame on the designated bad guy. It’s the usual reversion to populism when caught doing something unpopular. If you think a single politician, up to and including the President, is going to stand up and take blame, well, you have this example to dispel that notion. Insteadof leadership, we get demagoguery.
Once a community organizer, always a community organizer, I suppose – from an email I received recently from the Obama campaign email list:
The current debate in Washington over President Obama’s budget has made one thing clear — ensuring our long-term prosperity won’t come without a fight.
Partisan voices and special interests are showing real resistance to President Obama’s call for making the necessary reforms and investments in energy, health care, and education. That’s why we need to bring the conversation back into homes and communities across America.
Last week, thousands of you pledged your support for the President’s economic plan and encouraged your friends and family to join you in a national display of support. Now I need you to take the next step.
This weekend, supporters like you are organizing Pledge Project Canvasses to talk to people in their communities about this plan and mobilize support in neighborhoods across the country.
The eternal campaign continues with attempts to solicit the same ground support “magic” the campaign was able to solicit during the presidential campaign. However, doing that during a campaign when the focus is a person and his promises vs. attempting to do that when the person in question has gained the office and is now talking about concrete proposals which may or may not be in the best interest of the country isn’t quite as easy.
A couple of thoughts on this sort of an attempt. One – the tie that binds (getting Barack Obama elected) doesn’t necessarily extend to things like the budget or other specific issues. So the group that accomplished the former aren’t necessarily unified on the latter. That tends to promise lower turn out in the community events or, if they show up, some discord.
Two – the assumption is these events will demonstrate the will of the people and put pressure on Congress to act as Obama asks them to act, i.e. pass his budget. But there’s no direct linkage with this sort of activity and Congress like there was during the campaign when this sort of activity could be converted to votes. The Obama campaign used to brag about the “house parties” that were held at a grass-roots level demonstrating the power of his campaign and the promise of the votes to come. None of that translates into the same sort of power when aimed at Congress.
Three – it again demonstrates that the administration still hasn’t managed to get itself out of the campaign mode. Another example of that has been the AIG bonus debacle. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and AIG CEO Edward Liddy discussed the bonuses on the 11th of March. Liddy sent Geithner a letter on the 14th explaining the reason for them and the possible impact of not paying them (explained in the AIGFP Employee Retention Plan). It’s not about “retaining the best and brightest”. In fact, it is a calculated method of hedging their risk and ensuring the tax payer doesn’t end up on the hook for even more billions in bailouts.
Instead of calmly explaining this in a joint press conference with AIG, Geithner and the administration chose to fan the flames of outrage and use it for political gain. That isn’t leadership, that’s politics. And it is also an administration in the campaign mode. That’s a dangerous mode to be in, especially at this time and place. When given the opportunity to have a frank and tough discussion with the public about bonuses it knew were going to be paid and explaining their necessity, the Obama administration reverted to the populist campaign mode of demonizing AIG instead of calming the emotions and fears of the public.
No one with any sense is going to argue that AIG should be doing what it is doing or that the insurance giant isn’t absolutely tone-deaf to the dirge playing within the economy. But the effort and the PR agenda to reclaim the bonus money pursued by our new president just underscores the “confusion and contradiction” his actions and words engender.
President Obama vowed to try to stop the faltering insurance giant American International Group from paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to executives, as the administration scrambled to avert a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street that could complicate Mr. Obama’s economic recovery agenda.
We’re talking “hundreds of millions” of dollars here. But when confronted by a omnibus spending bill with hundreds of billions of dollars in 9,000 pork projects, meh, no biggie – “last year’s business.”