Monday, March 23, 2009

What Should be Done About AIG Bonuses?

Absolutely nothing should be done about the bonuses paid to AIG employees, at least not legislatively. To understand why, please take out a calculator now and do this simple division. Enter 165, to represent the $165 million in bonus compensation. Divide that by 170,000 to represent the $170 billion in bailout money that AIG has received. Look at the result. Adjust your calculator's display to show 5 digits to the right of the decimal point if your calculator doesn't already show them. The number you'll see is 0.00097. What does this mean? It means that the bonus money is less than one one-thousandth of the bailout money going to AIG.

This money, on a percentage basis, is less then the rounding error in many calculations. While $165 million is a huge amount of money to most of us, it's just not meaningful in the scope of AIG's problems or it's bailout, or the problems in the banking system, the government or the economy.

So I watch with sadness and amuzement while the House rants and then passes a bill that is reckless on several levels. It's reckless on constitutional grounds. If the Senate and President pass and sign anything like it, it may get struck down on those grounds in the courts. It's reckless on business grounds because of the perceptions of recklessness, fickleness and inconsistancy it will create for businesspeople. Who'd want Congress as a business partner? And it's reckless on political grounds, if there is a backlash against things going further wrong due to this bill.

This week we seem to be moving past the AIG furor, and focusing on the Geithner plan. That's great. We should forget about the AIG bonus issue and hope the legislation lapses into irrelevancy.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Is getting the bad assets out of the banks the way to go?

Today Federal Reserve Bank of Boston President Eric Rosengren said about getting the bad assets off the banks' books that it is "desirable to move quickly". I believe even more strongly than that, that it is essential. And that the people and institutions responsible for helping the economy recover are making a strategic mistake if they don't move quickly on it. They may be working on this in the background, and may even be finding problems and making progress. If so, the mistake is then one of communication.

Rosengren's study of the Japanese banks experience points to getting the bad assets out as cucial.

Rosengren points out from almost an organizational studies point of view that while the bad assets are on a bank's books, management stays fixated on the losses and mistakes at the cost of not moving forward into new, good loans. And as a trader, I know that sitting around looking at losses is not helpful in finding and making the next profitable trade. Instead, one should analyze the bad trade, learn what can be learned, and forget about the pain of the loss and move forward.

Getting the bad assets out of the institutions is of course easier said than done. That doesn't affect at all whether doing so is crucial to recovery. As we see with the Citibank bailout effors to date, the sick assets essentially sicken the whole institution. I've listened to many commentators about this, especially over the last three months. And it seems to me that the smart ones are essentially in agreement that paths always lead back to the bad assets in the institutions and their value. Washington and others may want that fact to go away, but it won't.

Neither is the fact that the root cause of the creation of those bad assets was the government's driving the banks to make lousy loans they would not otherwise have made. But I've covered that particular point already in this blog.

Here's a list of issues I've seen regarding the bad assets. Specifically these assets are the CDO's containing subprime loans, and derivatives based on these and other troubled assets, including CDS's.

1) There are losses on derivatives created out of thin air. That is, not just derivatives based on CDO's that actually exist. For the best explanation I've seen of this, see the article "The End" in Portfolio magazine, Dec08/Jan09.

2) The question is how to value assets, and after determining what are they worth. Of course the simple answer is that they *should* be valued by price discovery in an open, regulated, undistorted market. Since that option is not available, some form of modeling must be used.

3) The "taxpayer" has an interest in this. Politicians of any skill at all learned quickly months ago to recite phrases like "protect the taxpayer", "make the investment back" for them, "protect their interest" and the like. Nice to consider, but our situation is so bad that there will just be costs. This situation seems to be worse than the savings and loan debacle, and its relatively successful bailouts. The models for valuing the assets become mechanisms for allocating the losses. Not pretty.

4) The FASB changed an accounting rule earlier in the crisis, known as "mark-to-market" and also "Fair Value Accounting". I feel I understand FASB's basic motivation to make the rule change. A huge theme in accounting is knowing the present value of everything, even things that won't be realized as a financial entry until the distant future. However, this rule change, accompanied by a lack of guidance at the time, did serious but quiet harm to banks and other institutions. This harm is not yet fully discovered. Over-the-counter, unregulated markets and the end of markets and price discovery at all combined with the rule to force banks losses. The get close to declaring the losses; they need the bailouts.

5) The "bad-bank" discussions are about creating containers for the toxic assets outside the instituions. If we had liquid markets for the assets, we wouldn't need the containers. Every few days there's a story about a firm that wants to buy some toxic assets, but learn that they can't. In a sense it's too dangerous to establish a price by selling assets to them. Go figure.

6) In the end, leaving the toxic assets in a fully public "bad bank" wouldn't be as bad as the government nationalizing banks, or almost so. Why? The government can boss the assets around all it wants to, and then sell them later. This will cause less long-term damage to markets and American free enterprise then the government bossing around banks, and creating long-term, heinous market distortions.