Saturday, September 27, 2008

Clawbacks, fake alpha and tail risk

Earlier this year I wrote a post Fake alpha, compensation and tail risk in finance:

...current banking and money management compensation schemes create incentives for taking on tail risk... and disguising it as alpha. The proposed solution: holdbacks or clawbacks of bonus money... When will shareholders smarten up and enforce this kind of compensation scheme on management at public firms?

The classic example is writing naked (unhedged) insurance policies covering rare events and pocketing the fees as alpha. You trade tail risk for cash, and hope things don't blow up until you are out the door. It's agency risk on steroids.

This NYTimes article describes, in detail, a perfect example of this phenomenon in the case of AIG. AIG, a global insurance company with over 100k employees, was brought down by a tiny unit in London that traded credit default swaps (CDS).

Once it became clear that AIG was in trouble, Treasury and the Fed had to step in because AIG was too connected to fail. In fact, the article states that Goldman, Paulson's former employer, had up to $20B of CDS exposure to AIG. The current head of Goldman was the only Wall St. executive invited to the meetings between AIG and the government. Conflict of interest for soon to be King Henry Paulson?

Joseph Cassano, the former head of AIG's London credit derivatives unit, is perhaps the first (although probably not the last) poster boy for clawbacks in the credit crisis. Total compensation for his unit of 377 employees averaged over $1 million per employee in recent years. I would guess that means Cassano took home easily in the tens and perhaps over 100 million dollars in the last few years. Will taxpayers get back any of that compensation?

“It is hard for us, without being flippant, to even see a scenario within any kind of realm of reason that would see us losing one dollar in any of those transactions.”

— Joseph J. Cassano, a former A.I.G. executive, August 2007


NYTimes ...Although America’s housing collapse is often cited as having caused the crisis, the system was vulnerable because of intricate financial contracts known as credit derivatives, which insure debt holders against default. They are fashioned privately and beyond the ken of regulators — sometimes even beyond the understanding of executives peddling them.

Originally intended to diminish risk and spread prosperity, these inventions instead magnified the impact of bad mortgages like the ones that felled Bear Stearns and Lehman and now threaten the entire economy.

In the case of A.I.G., the virus exploded from a freewheeling little 377-person unit in London, and flourished in a climate of opulent pay, lax oversight and blind faith in financial risk models. It nearly decimated one of the world’s most admired companies, a seemingly sturdy insurer with a trillion-dollar balance sheet, 116,000 employees and operations in 130 countries.

“It is beyond shocking that this small operation could blow up the holding company,” said Robert Arvanitis, chief executive of Risk Finance Advisors in Westport, Conn. “They found a quick way to make a fast buck on derivatives based on A.I.G.’s solid credit rating and strong balance sheet. But it all got out of control.”

...The insurance giant’s London unit was known as A.I.G. Financial Products, or A.I.G.F.P. It was run with almost complete autonomy, and with an iron hand, by Joseph J. Cassano, according to current and former A.I.G. employees.

...These insurance products were known as “credit default swaps,” or C.D.S.’s in Wall Street argot, and the London unit used them to turn itself into a cash register.

The unit’s revenue rose to $3.26 billion in 2005 from $737 million in 1999. Operating income at the unit also grew, rising to 17.5 percent of A.I.G.’s overall operating income in 2005, compared with 4.2 percent in 1999.

Profit margins on the business were enormous. In 2002, operating income was 44 percent of revenue; in 2005, it reached 83 percent.

Mr. Cassano and his colleagues minted tidy fortunes during these high-cotton years. Since 2001, compensation at the small unit ranged from $423 million to $616 million each year, according to corporate filings. That meant that on average each person in the unit made more than $1 million a year.

Update: from the Pelosi bailout legislation summary -- good luck implementing this!

New restrictions on CEO and executive compensation for participating companies:

* No multi-million dollar golden parachutes
* Limits CEO compensation that encourages unnecessary risk-taking
* Recovers bonuses paid based on promised gains that later turn out to be false or inaccurate

2 comments:

buzzlightyear said...

I think this is a blatant conflict of interest, and I find it astonishing that this is not mentioned in the article at all. At the very least, Paulson should have stepped aside and allowed someone to take charge. He could have still been providing advice on the side, but he should definitely not have taken the lead role.

G said...

Exactly!

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