The Great AIG Witch Hunt

AIG is (was?) one of the largest insurance companies in the world, with a finger in nearly every line of business that could be called insurance, including, fatally, credit default swaps, or CDSs.  A CDS is a form of insurance in which the issuer (AIG) guarantees that a bond will be paid off even if the borrower defaults.  AIG wrote massive amounts of this insurance on bonds backed by American residential mortgages, allowing holders of these bonds to treat them as very safe and stable AAA rated investments.  In the clarity of hindsight,Midnight_torches crop AIG was amazingly foolish.  They apparently did not consider that if the real estate market went south then all those mortgage bonds would be in trouble at the same time.

Of course it did go south, and AIG had hundreds of billions of dollars of insurance claims that it could not pay.  This being one of the most extreme examples of Too Big To Fail that could be imagined, the US Government stepped in, took AIG over, and proceeded to pump in enough money to make good on its debts.  There may have been, at first, a hope that AIG could be saved as a going concern, but it soon became clear that the only practical game plan was to stabilize the situation long enough to sell off the many sound operations that AIG owns and wind down, in as orderly and cheaply a way as possible, the CDS business.  The money thus raised and saved won’t be enough to make the taxpayer whole, but it’s a lot better than nothing. 

One of the big challenges with that sort of plan is that it is very hard to keep people working at a company on its deathbed.  This is particularly a problem for white-collar companies like AIG, which own no factories or equipment.  The employees are the company, and if they start fleeing the sinking ship, then it’s all over.  So AIG did what companies in this situation often do, use what are called retention bonuses to keep key people at their desks.  The deal is usually not much more complicated than a promise that if you keep working here until X date we will pay you Y dollars.  This is relatively common and is a typical feature of many bankruptcy reorganizations.

There.  If you kept awake for the past three paragraphs you now understand more about AIG than the vast majority of your fellow citizens, journalists and elected representatives included.

Which is not to imply that a lack of knowledge amongst the masses has led to a lack of strong opinions.  According to a recent poll 77% of Americans think the government should take the AIG bonuses back and 71% believe that financial institutions do not need to pay bonuses to hire and retain employees.  Remarkably, although 57% said that they had read or heard “a lot” about the topic, fully 35% of those polled thought that Congress had spent too little time on AIG.

It’s hard to imagine how Congress could have spent more time on it.  Last week a bidding war broke out over who could concoct the most punitive venting of the public outrage.  Steve Israel (D-NY) and Tim Ryan (D-OH) probably won this with a bill to tax the bonuses at 100%.  Senators and Congressmen have been frantically elbowing their way to the nearest TV camera so that they can tell the American people that the American people are outraged about the AIG bonuses.

It’s telling that they almost always start their remarks by noting how angry the citizenry is, rather than by saying that they themselves are angry. A cynic (e.g. me) might speculate that they privately know better, but too scared of the poll numbers to say so.

The AIG controversy has been called a firestorm, which is a good label, but not the best one.  It does have some characteristics of a forest fire, started unintentionally by irresponsible people, unnoticed or ignored while still small enough to put out, and now raging beyond control.  But there is a better term McCarthy_Cohnfor this.  This is a witch hunt.

Like witches in Salem or communist infiltrators in the 1950s, Wall Street operators are now popularly thought of as a mysteriously sinister force attempting to undermine our way of life.  Once started, witch hunts are hard to stop.  When the angry townspeople arrive at your doorstep with pitchforks and torches, chanting “Burn the witch!”, your only choices are to start chanting too or risk getting burned.

So everybody in Washington is chanting as loudly as possible.  This includes, rather deftly, the Obama administration, which by all rights should be fleeing the angry mob.  AIG, after all, is a ward of the state.  The CEO was selected and installed by the government with the remit to minimize damage to the taxpayer.  There is considerable evidence that the Treasury Department knew about the bonus scheme from day one and approved it.

And yet with a little double talk, and the aid of a friendly media, the administration has succeeded in getting out the story that they had nothing to do with this.  A recent poll found that only 12% of Americans thought the administration had a lot of control over the bonuses and 51% thought they had “not much” or “no” control.

If you are wondering what this has to do with bad personal finance advice, the answer is that, directly, nothing.  But it is a symptom of the same core problem, a widespread and shameless ignorance of the ways of money.  Ours is a nation where how Hollywood works is common knowledge but Wall Street is a mystery.  And not knowing how Wall Street works can be just as damaging to the economy as not understanding the basics of personal finance.  There is still plenty of opportunity for the government to take action that will make our economic situation much, much worse.

As has been said many times, the problem with democracy is that you get exactly the government you deserve.

[Torchlight parade photo by Ensign beedrill.]

No Comments

  • By GPR, March 24, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    But…several of the retention bonuses went to people who are no longer employed at AIG. Which would suggest they were performance bonuses, not retention. And now it appears AIG (gasp) lied again, and the bonus pool is much larger than admitted.

    This may be a bit like the problem with tragedies: a typhoon killing thousands is too big to think about. The baby in a well is easier to mentally grasp and be concerned with.

    A trillion dollars of bail out – huge number. A bonus – a freakin’ bonus – for epic failure? That I can be mad about.

    I’m enjoying your site!

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, March 24, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

    Bonuses going to people no longer there is an excellent point to which I have no clever response. I can only guess, and it is only a guess, that those people were let go in the meantime. Retention bonus schemes need to provide that people shown the door still get the bonus (but not those that quit) otherwise the company could just fire everybody the day before bonuses are due.

    To be clear, I’m not saying that this particular scheme was well thought out or well designed. But in principle, if not in detail, it is perfectly reasonable and somebody in Washington ought to have the nerve to say that publicly.

    And your point about typhoons vs. babies in wells is dead on. I wish I had thought of it first.

  • By My Journey, March 24, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    I have been arguing about this with my family and friends for what seems like too long. I work for a MAJOR insurance company (I keep which one hush hush for purposes of not to awake the compliance beast on my personal blog), and we have one of the top producers in the country in our office.

    He gets paid per life insurance contract three times what would normally be paid out to a new life insurance agent/financial planner (depending on their education, experience etc.). Then on top of that he gets bonuses, lots of them. If this insurance company were to pull that amount, he would leave it is that simple. When he left so would all those premiums.

    The bonuses paid out, were not only for failed arms of AIG, but highly successful branches of the world’s largest insurer.

    Does this refute GPR’s point? not really but it is often forgot in the midst of the witch hunt

  • By SJ, March 24, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    Hehe… what’s the witchhunt pic from? looks entertaining.
    I admit that reading the 3 paragraphs was informative; My understanding was to just strip AIG down and restructure; But it’s actually to close down all of AIG??

    Btw, I also finished going through your archives, it’s pretty entertaining =)! Well written + informative + funny.

  • By tm, March 24, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    “Ours is a nation where how Hollywood works is common knowledge but Wall Street is a mystery.”
    Living near Hollywood, I’d say that the nation knows how the film industry works only slightly better than how Wall Street works, which is not much. I think it’d be more accurate to say the nation knows more about celebrities and their lifestyles than it does about Wall Street, but that’s a pedantic nitpick, yes.
    To Hollywood’s credit, one of the enduring sayings within the film industry is “no one knows anything”. I don’t think you’d find many on Wall Street cop to that.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, March 24, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    SJ: I actaully feel a little bad about the picture. It’s of Texas A&M students on their way to a midnight football rally. Wikipedia article here.
    But it just looks so much like a witch hunt…..

  • By SJ, March 25, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    It does! It’s great!!!

    I think it would be worse form to use an actual witch hunt pic =)

  • By Phil, March 25, 2009 @ 5:32 am

    I think the AIG situation is more bread and circuses than a witch hunt. No is going to get hanged. At the very worst some very rich people are going to give back or be taxed on a portion of their income from 2008. A true witch hunt would happen if the names and addresses of those who received the bonuses were made public.

    Instead, politicians get to pound on the table, assign blame for the “Great Recession,” and give people *sense* of justice through actions which in the end are really meaningless towards fixing the problem.
    panem et circenses

    And no, the Obama adm should not “be fleeing the angry mob.” They’ve not been in power long enough either to fix the situation or make it worse so don’t deserve either a hanging or a parade.

  • By Rian, March 25, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    This NYT Op-Ed seems a propos.

    Thankfully, the populist rage seems to be burning down, now. It really is just a meaningless smokescreen. Some of the folks responsible might get bonuses, most will not. Bonus money allocation won’t be 100% perfect, and it’s absurd to expect it to be. If the TARP money were normalized to $100, the AIG bonuses amount to less than a dime.

    Why are we spending so much time on this non-issue? The folks who made the mess aren’t being penalized; the people trying to clean it up are.

  • By My Journey, March 25, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    Rian,

    Thank you for pointing me to that Op-Ed piece! That was amazing…and reiterates my exact point above.

  • By GPR, March 25, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    (for the purposes of this rant, I’m ignoring the bonuses paid to AIG divisions that did OK, and focusing on the credit default swap group.)

    I think the fundamental difference between the above example of the top insurance performer and the AIG “bonus babies” is success. Your guy writes tons of contracts and is rewarded accordingly. AIG brought the world to the brink of financial apocalypse in the most colossal failure ever.

    So I’ll grant you that the huge failure is the real issue, and that the bonus is a minor, but aggravating thorn.

    But I still have a few questions, even if it does make me a pitchfork carrying populist:

    1. Who got fired?
    2. Did any of them get bonuses?
    3. How badly do you need to fail before bonuses are withheld?
    4. If it’s “contractual,” who writes a contract with a guaranteed bonus regardless of success, regardless of continued employment? Isn’t this a horrible business practice?

    By their very definition bonuses are designed to be incentive pay, for accomplishing tasks, or for sticking around.

    So I guess my long winded point is this: these bonuses may not be a large percentage, but they are a huge indicator – a canary in the coal mine – of the problems with this firm and possibly all of Wall street. That no matter what happens, no matter how big the mess, the big-swinging-you-know-whats at the top will get paid a LOT of money. Even when it isn’t really theirs.

  • By GPR, March 25, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Oh, and the explanation and back story for the photograph really ruins it for me. Talk about taking away all the menace.

    Cheers!

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, March 25, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    GPR:

    1. Sorry about the photo explanation. I just can’t help myself.

    2. Based on the Times Op-Ed letter, which I think is just about the only first-hand account out there, it would appear that the number of people covered by the retention bonus scheme and responsible for the CDS nightmare is very very small. Maybe half a dozen, and plausibly zero. Are they worth even a rant?

    3. Do you think that Jake DeSantis (author of the Times Op-Ed letter) should not get his retention bonus?

  • By Jason, March 26, 2009 @ 10:14 am

    “One of the big challenges with that sort of plan is that it is very hard to keep people working at a company on its deathbed…. So AIG did what companies in this situation often do, use what are called retention bonuses to keep key people at their desks.”

    I wanted to make a quick comment on this. I’ve heard this line of thinking before and I can’t say I find it all that persuasive. If a company is going south in an economy with a robust executive labor market, I can see the concern of people jumping ship.

    In light with the weak labor market in general (and in the finance sector in particular), I have to wonder where these people would go after AIG. Meaning, I think most people would stay, bonus or not.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, March 26, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    Speaking as a finance guy who’s been unemployed for 18 months, I have sympathy for the idea that the AIG finance guys couldn’t find work elsewhere, but I know better. Maybe not everybody could find another job, but those that could are exactly the ones you want to stick around. Also, keep in mind that the bonus in places like that is typically 90% of total comp in normal times, so paying them only base is asking them to work in what must be a really unpleasant environment at what they consider 10% pay. I’m sure many would prefer unemployment.

    There is an article in today’s WSJ about two execs from AIG’s Paris office who have resigned and the huge problems that is causing.

  • By GPR, March 26, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    3. Do you think that Jake DeSantis (author of the Times Op-Ed letter) should not get his retention bonus?
    —————————

    Of course he should NOT get his bonus.

    DeSantis makes some very valid points about the unfortunate side effects of getting a little tar and feathers stuck on him.

    But like a lot of people these days, he works for a failed company.

    And he’s complaining that doesn’t get a bonus?

    Most people in this situation don’t get the chance to quit. They get laid off. They get unemployment and reduced severance packages.

    His company is on life support welfare. And frankly, I think he sounds a little whiny.

    The point he doesn’t address in his op-ed is that his company is broke. His division may not have caused it, and may have even made money. But they’re still broke. I work for the only division in my company that made money last year. This lets me keep my job. I don’t think I’m going to demand a raise though.

  • By GPR, March 26, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    Another point: I’ve always understood that high paying jobs carried a bigger risk/reward ratio. Sales people with high commissions may not get any sales this month, but may do great next month. That sort of thing.

    At some point Wall Street guys seem to have removed all the risk for their own performance, while increasing dramatically the rewards.

  • By My Journey, March 26, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    @GPR,

    I may have misunderstood the op-ed piece but this was his yearly salary. He took $1 in straight salary.

  • By GPR, March 26, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    @My Journey:

    You are correct, and I had read that, but forgotten. (pitchfork wielding crowds do not care for subtle facts!).

    I’ll admit it complicates things. There’s some base amount that a successful performer at a failed company is most likely due.

    I will stand fast, however, that Mr. DeSantis was an executive at a failed company, and that brought amazing rewards. And should bring heightened risks.

  • By Jason, March 28, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    Frank — I’m much less familiar with France, its economy and its labor market. At the same time, I suppose many people at this level are at points in their career where they can retire and I understand the need to retain qualified people. Still, as a blanket statement and a justification for all these bonuses, I remain skeptical.

    GPR — I also noticed that 10% of that bonus is was 70k+. Many people work long hours for that or less. And a lot of people have lost their jobs entirely or taken pay cuts. I can’t say I have much sympathy for Mr. DeSantis.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, March 28, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    I think all that we can ask is whether or not these bonuses are reasonable in principle. Not enough of the details are public for any of us to make an informed judgement about the specifics, if this guy or that guy really needed to get $X or would half as much or nothing done just as well. Moreover, the outrage is ostensibly over the principle of the thing, not the details. And I believe that in principle what AIG did to minimize the cost to the taxpayer by offering these people a retention bonus to stick around is sound.

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