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March 16, 2009

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Obama deserves to take a huge political hit for this, which is a shame since it will only empower Republicans. His stern words for AIG are followed immediately by his wiring them another $10 billion in taxpayer money so they can boast in the NYT that the government is funding their lavish parties. But of course, he asked them nicely to curtail the bonuses, so he did everything he could! I have to say, I'm really regretting my vote for him at this point.

As for the "contractual obligations", so... now we are a country of laws again? Funny how that works, isn't it.

According to a story in this morning's NYT, the Obama administration is worried that populist anger will "complicate" their agenda. Well, here's another complication. I'm furious that they're trying to manage the anger, rather than tap into it to make real change.

I am calling Mr. Liddy's office to ask for my money back. Seriously. The AIG NY offices are: (212) 770-7000

Bellwetherman: Anger does not lead to good policy; it leads to revenge for the sake of revenge instead of carefully thought out policy which is fair to all parties. It's entirely possible to coopt it for the service of sound rational policy, but it's playing with fire and should be constrained.

This is amazing: you really have to read Mr. Liddy's letter through to grasp what an astonishing masterpiece of weaselry this really is!

First: he leads off with an unnecessary self-exculpation about how none of this is his "fault".

Second: he hides behind the law - "contractual obligations" re "retention amounts" (I noticed the word "bonus" only appears once): and adds more weaselling by piously noting his "dislike" for the arrangements.

Third: he makes some half-assed promises ("commits to use best efforts") to fix the situation for next year, along with some cosmetic reductions ("$1 salary") right now.

Fourth: closes with the disgraceful nonsense hilzoy cites in her post.

I'm not sure what's the more depressing thing: that a (presumably) high-powered business executive - of a virtually-bankrupt financial giant dependent on government money for a bailout - would dare to write and send this piece of excuse-mongering crapola to the the SecTreas; or the prospect that Sec. Geithner (and the whole Obama Administration) will simply join the weasel brigade and let AIG get away with this outrage.

I've maintained for some time now that whether or note these people get paid 'bonuses' is less important than forcing them to accept responsibility. My thought is that before they ever got a single penny, all of the management of the responsible parties should have gone on live TV and a)publicly admit that they made mistakes, b)apologized for making those mistakes, and c)again, publicly declared a resolution to make some sort of amends.

No public apology, no bailout money. This I think is the fundamental problem: without being held to an official admission of responsibility, these people are clearly going to try to keep things going on exactly as they were before.

Anon: Your observation is ahistoric. A continuing aim of good policy is creating a more just society, and that happens when righteous anger is properly harnessed, not feared. Witness the Progressive Era.

I'm appalled but not at all surprised by the Obama administration's seeing this populist anger as an impediment, not an opportunity. Rahm Emanuel. Larry Summers. Tim Geithner. Not a populist among 'em.

The funny thing is, there are agenda items on the table--most notably EFCA--for which the Obama administration could easily take advantage of this upswell of populism. But I fear that people in charge of Obama's economic policy know that, were they to do so, they'd have a tiger by the tail. And the bottom line for Obama's economic team is still Wall Street's bottom line.

First: he leads off with an unnecessary self-exculpation about how none of this is his "fault".

It's possible none of it is his fault. As far as I can tell, he first worked for AIG starting September of 2008, after pretty much all of the damage was done. It's possible he's screwed some things up since then, I suppose, but I'm not sure if any screwup could even register, after the September fall.

Well, but the "he started after sept of 2008" argument cuts both ways. We used to say "a new broom sweeps clean." If he wasn't implicated in the earlier bad decisions and was brought in, in some sense, to clean up the mess he has zero reason absent self interest and long term connections to pay the bonuses to the failed managerial staff.

aimai

Having persons who helped create this problem receive retention bonuses is, of course, outrageous, absurd and disgusting, and somewhat contrary to capitalist principles. And it looks bad, which is really the main problem as it allows Republicans to play faux populists while Obama is stuck with the pragmatic responsibility of solving the problem created by Republican rule. BUT solving the problem is the main point and those of us who want Obama to succeed should not play into the hands of those who want him to fail. As I understand it, $70B of money to AIG is from TARP capital injections and another $110B is from the Federal Reserve's loans made last fall. The money from the Federal Reserve is not taxpayer money. As I understand it, including what Bernanke said on 60 minutes last night, the Fed basically gave AIG an acount at the Federal Reserve with $110B in it to use to meet their obligations. This was a loan, just like when your bank makes a loan to you by putting a no doubt much smaller amount into your account. In both instances, the money supply gets expanded. In other words, the Fed printed money, digitally, of course. This loan is to be paid off through moneys realized from sale of AIG assets and there is really no reason to believe that it will not be paid back, with interest, and, therefore, profit to the Federal Reserve, as AIG has valuable assets that can be sold profitably over time. For the same reason, I also expect that the TARP money that went to AIG is also likely to be returned in full, with interest. The funds paid out in bonuses can be viewed as funds paid from the loan made by the Federal Reserve, funds which will be repaid and cost the taxpayers nothing in the end, and have never, in fact, been taxpayer dollars. Fundamentally, all of this is not being done to save AIG, it is being done to save the economy and the Obama Administration is correct to keep its eye on that ball. Thus, my concern is not the bonuses, but that Obama and his admin have not done a better job of explaining what all of this is for in the first place. If allowing a few idiots to receive their bonuses is necessary to solving the problem, then so be it. For the future, of course, we need legislation that properly regulates the financial instruments that caused the problem, works to avoid the creation of "too big to fail" institutions and that provides a method of resolving problems like this in the future that would give the govt the legal ability to say no to such bonuses. However, I might add that it may be, as a practical matter, that the bonuses should be paid to keep important people on board, and so it may be better that the Obama Admin can claim that they have no choice because of the law rather than having to say that the bonues make sense for any other reason. It seems to me that a lot of us on the outside looking in keep demanding some perfect solution in which the economy is saved and all of the bad people suffer some grotesque punishment, but that is not reality and after 8 years of an administration that pursued its agenda without regard to reality, we voted in an administration that would deal with reality, no matter how unpleasant.

If he wasn't implicated in the earlier bad decisions and was brought in, in some sense, to clean up the mess he has zero reason absent self interest and long term connections to pay the bonuses to the failed managerial staff

Or, of course, those pesky contracts. If they exist.

But I agree with the flavor of your comment, and would have liked to see at least some symbolic defenestration performed on a select or even widespread basis, in that group.

But once again, the problems at AIG are not problems of Liddy's making. They may be problems that he's been fairly ineffective at cleaning up, but who has been effective at doing likewise, in other corporations?

Ben Alpers: And the bottom line for Obama's economic team is still Wall Street's bottom line.

Unfortunately, Wall Street's bottom line is important to the economy, even though we all wish it weren't. There are a huge number of people out there who thought, a year ago, they'd be able to retire soon and have decided now that they can't because they're retirement accounts have been halved. Or, some of those people may have thought they had enough financial security to do something entrepreneurial, or not for profit. Those people are now taking up space in the job market.

I agree with gregspolitics, even though I find the bonuses disgusting. I very much hope this crisis effects huge regulatory reform, and someone finds a way to get the bonuses back. But I have a hard time believing that abandoning support for Obama will help; rather, health care reform, a plan for the environment, and the many other things we care about are the things we should be working hardest for.

Enjoyable as it may be to watch lawyers debate the niceties of whether or not this instance of looting might have been technically legal, watching a president with a mandate for change grovel before Wall Street is really pathetic. Obama allowed himself to be billed as a potential FDR, and right now he looks like, at best, a brown-nosed bureaucrat.

Who is watching these 'vital geniuses' who are the only ones who understand the complexities well enough to be able to unravel the complex instruments that caused this mess?

They weren't deliberately out to wreck the economy. They really believed that what they were doing was beneficial, or at least if they had 'evil motives' they were simply greed. The instruments would make them (and their companies money -- they weren't looking at long-term effects.

And the ideas were, in general, pretty smart and ingenious -- until they fell apart. But the same people whose ingenuity caused the mess are fixing it? Fine...

if someone is watching them to make sure they are fixing it. We don't want them using the ingenuity to come up with a new, 'over-clever' scheme that will fix things in the short-run and explode in our faces five years down the road. We want them working on one thing, unraveling the whole mess so that we can get rid of it, not raveling it up more with an idea that looks as good as their last ones did.

So AIG has to pay these absurd bonuses or their valuable "talent" will be scooped up by other near-bankrupt firms just drooling over the opportunity to hire the mendacious, corrupt, venal, arrogant, sociopathic halfwits who drove AIG into the poorhouse. Makes sense to me.

Hope in one hand; piss in the other. Which one got damp?

There is not one damned thing that has been done to prevent exactly this same sort of thing from happening again.

The same ators are in place, the same system is still 'operating,' the same game is on.

Nothing is gonna change, darlings. Sorry 'bout your retirement...

They weren't deliberately out to wreck the economy.... The instruments would make them (and their companies money -- they weren't looking at long-term effects.

Depraved indifference, anyone?

There are a huge number of people out there who thought, a year ago, they'd be able to retire soon and have decided now that they can't because they're retirement accounts have been halved.

These people have failed. Some of them chose financial advisers poorly and some of them made very poor investment decisions. But either way, no one planning to retire soon should have a large fraction of their assets invested in the asset classes that have tanked. As you approach retirement, you should be shifting assets into asset classes that have lower yields but also much less risk, like, you know, treasury bills.

There are lots of people who don't know enough to figure this out and financial companies have created funds for just such people: these are computer generated indices that automatically shift their asset allocation as you get closer to retirement. So if you plan on retiring in 2035, you can put your money into the Fidelity Freedom 2035 fund; there is no thinking required.

There is no excuse for getting screwed over in the manner you describe. Either people decided to manage their own money despite lacking the knowledge and skills needed to do so, or they entrusted their money to financial managers who are seriously negligent.

One of the most counterproductive things that we could all COLLECTIVELY do at this point would be to point fingers.
This type of stuff has been going on since the first tulip bulb scam in the 1600's.
It is what results from the way we do business, think about money, and the way that we have theorized the human exchanges that make up the economy.
We are ALL responsible for this, because we are all part of this society. After, of course, there are people who are more or less responsible in function of the power that they wield in this context.
But we condone it. Simply by not imagining other ways to go about doing "business".
The saddest part of the Liddy letter is the language. Impoverished. Like the man, I suppose. And the lack of empathy and imagination.
But we have been collectively shitting on empathy and imagination for a while now, too...

"These people have failed." Perhaps so. Perhaps they were greedy, stupid, and gullible, just as the people who overextended themselves on their mortgages were ill-advised or worse. The economy still suffers for the fact that these people can't retire, can't spend any money, and have the prospect for a seriously more uncomfortable life than they imagined they might have had. Not to mention the fact that most people's ability to save money over time would probably not have financed their children's basic needs, college tuitions and a comfortable retirement, which is why many of them played the stock market like a slightly better-odds lottery.

The funny thing is that an argument could be made that this guy is in a position with respect to these bonuses like the one Obama is in with respect to detainees: they inherited a cake into which other people had previously baked highly undesirable things, and it's hard to figure out how to get those things out of the metaphorical cake without destroying the rest of the cake.
The questions, of course, are (1) what are the true costs of facing these undesirable things head-on (finding a way to break the contracts' bonus provisions for Liddy, or revealing all our past actions and granting full legal rights to detainees for Obama) and (2) what are the true costs of trying to live with the situation and not fix it (just paying the bonuses for Liddy, and for Obama, basically what he has been doing - temporizing and continuing to deny rights).

Now, for the Obama comparison I've been making I'm firmly of the opinion that the long-term costs of not facing the true horrors of Bush's detainee legacy openly are too much to bear; but for Liddy, I'm less sure. In the previous thread, Neil Sinhabubu made the point that this should be seen as extortion: 0.1% to pay off the people who wrecked AIG, because it's cheaper than paying other people to figure out how they wrecked it. Distasteful, but maybe that's the right calculation. Though, obviously, these people and maybe even their friends and families should be unemployed and shunned by decent society for the rest of their lives.

Of course, even if there are decent arguments for paying these crooks off, that doesn't excuse the tone of Liddy's letter.

@ Turbulence
There are lots of people who don't know enough to figure this out and financial companies have created funds for just such people: these are computer generated indices that automatically shift their asset allocation as you get closer to retirement. So if you plan on retiring in 2035, you can put your money into the Fidelity Freedom 2035 fund; there is no thinking required.

Well, sort of. I work for a leading financial company that might have been mentioned in your cited paragraph. Our 401k accounts invest solely in the company's funds, although we can choose almost any of them, and its a very wide choice.

So, since day one, my retirement was 50% in exactly the kind of fund (although not the year) you mention. Most of the rest is in bonds. In the second half of last year, the value of my retirement dropped by @45%. So much for not thinking.

The fact is, all equity investors got croaked last year. Some, like Warren Buffet, less so. Some others, like AIG or Bear or Merrill employees, almost totally. But we all took the shaft, every one.

The problem in the banking system is a lack of trust, a lack of confidence. This problem will persist as long as we allow the banking system to be run by the kind of people who are now asking for these bonuses. Who in her right mind would trust such people?

It is a game of chicken now, as someone on this thread or the previous one said, and the government must call the bluff of these goons. No amount of money can restore trust in these people, and it is that trust on which our economy basically relies. AIG's insurance division should be taken over and guaranteed by the government; its financial products division must fail, come what may to the counter-parties, and our financial system must be rebuilt completely.

These people have failed.

One of those people is my wife.

She's saved rigorously for 20-25 years, at no small sacrifice. Her money (and most of mine) is invested and managed by a local branch of UBS. I don't know the details of the conversations she had with our guy there, but I do know she paid pretty close attention. Closer than me, anyway, my money is basically in one of those 'invest by the numbers' kind of plans you describe.

Sadly, not everyone is as sharp as they would have needed to be to avoid taking a beating in this particular market. I guess you could say both she and I have 'failed', in the sense that we're not achieving our financial goals, but it's not for lack of trying.

Maybe we should have worked with someone smarter, but I doubt our guy was seriously negligent. I don't really know anyone who's doing any better than we are. Some folks we know are doing a lot worse.

Finance-wise, we're pluggers. Lots of folks are.

watching a president with a mandate for change grovel before Wall Street is really pathetic. Obama allowed himself to be billed as a potential FDR, and right now he looks like, at best, a brown-nosed bureaucrat.

I don't think this is a very good historical comparison, because you aren't taking into account where we are in the chronological sequence if this is in fact Great Depression 2 (IMHO I think the latter statement is likely to prove correct).

FDR took office as the GD 1 was already 3 and 1/2 years underway and nearing bottom, as measured either by GDP and unemployment figures or via equity prices (for example see the charts available at dshort for some historical context). Obama in contrast took office and is now dealing with a situation where we are probably only halfway down to what could be the bottom this time if things really fall apart. FDRs task was to rebuild from the ruins of a system which was already collapsed. Obama and his advisors in contrast are trying to prevent a full collapse from occurring on their watch.

The role which AIG plays is key in this regard because more than any of the other troubled Wall St. firms it is the nexus of the credit default swaps problem and associated systemic risks. AIG wrote swaps enabling many large European banks to evade regulatory capital requirements (see for example the story in the Financial Times yesterday AIG publishes counterparty list), and the major European banks at risk are roughly twice as leveraged as their US counterparts. Thus the CDS contracts and in particular those issued by AIG have to be settled first before punitive action can be taken on Wall St. at the corporate level, and if Obama and Co. mess this up then in all likelihood the European banking system may very well collapse, probably in a far more dramatic fashion (e.g. a run on deposits and the panic which that would create) than what we've seen up to this point.

From the interviews I've read or viewed it appears that Geithner and others were deeply chastened by the fallout from the Lehman failure, which was much greater than they anticipated. AIG is vastly more dangerous from a systemic risk standpoint than was LEH, so I can understand their reluctance to move boldly. This is a grave problem with both human and geopolitical implications far beyond just finding the principle malefactors on Wall St. and standing them up against a wall, as emotionally satisfying as the latter might be. I agree with what gregspolitics has commented - we hired adults to run the country, and sometimes this is what it looks like when there are no easy choices to make and what we would like to do is something with the potential for causing large scale collateral damage.

Let me put it in these terms: after 9-11 people in the US reacted emotionally and some wanted to express our sense of anger by throwing some sh*tty little country up against the wall (as Michael Leeden so colorfully put it), and the details of what might happen as a consequence of doing so just weren't that important in the heat of the moment. How well did that work out? Now we have what may be a similar situation - but now the malefactors on Wall St. are the targets of our collective anger and thirst for revenge. While I feel the same sense of outrage and anger being expressed by others (both here and elsewhere) and have in the past indulged in "just shoot the bastards" rhetoric myself, IMHO it is a good thing to have the current administration not being swept away on a tide of populist anger in responding to this situation, or a few years down the road we may yet again regret decisions made in haste and in the heat of the moment without regard to collateral damage or longer term consequences. And in this situation I don't see accusations of "groveling" as being constructive. If you have a better plan, then by all means put it forward, but find something better to do than the metaphorical equivalent of throwing rocks at the bomd-disposal squad while they are at work.

TLTinABQ, how sensible. I just wish everyone could see it that way - I think Obama's going to be in serious difficulty if some blood isn't drawn from some of the financial criminals. Reading any comments section on any blog or newspaper anywhere is pretty frightening. They need to do a better PR job. I wonder what effect Cuomo's investigation is going to have.

Now we have what may be a similar situation - but now the malefactors on Wall St. are the targets of our collective anger and thirst for revenge. While I feel the same sense of outrage and anger being expressed by others (both here and elsewhere) and have in the past indulged in "just shoot the bastards" rhetoric myself, IMHO it is a good thing to have the current administration not being swept away on a tide of populist anger

Except that is not what is happening. Far from it. Unless you want to say that no bonuses for a poor performance constitutes being 'swept away by a tide of populist anger'. Myself, I just want them to admit their culpability on TV in front of millions. Is that something that's particularly punitive?

It is a game of chicken now, as someone on this thread or the previous one said, and the government must call the bluff of these goons.

I'm the one who called it Chicken. The goal in Chicken is to make the other guy get out of your way before you crash. The best way to do this is to convince the other player that you are crazy, and that you won't get out of the way. If he doesn't swerve, you get a massive collision.

These financial wizards have convinced me that they are crazy, and that it isn't a bluff. If we try to call the "bluff," we are going to get a massive collision.

These financial wizards have convinced me that they are crazy, and that it isn't a bluff. If we try to call the "bluff," we are going to get a massive collision.

Interestingly, I mostly agree with your presmises but disagree wildly with the conclusion. I agree they're crazy, or greedy enough to count as crazy; I agree they're not bluffing about their willingness to let the country crash and burn if they don't get their way; what I don't agree with one iota is that these same financial wunderkinden who got us into this mess can get us out of it.

Frankly, I think anyone that nakedly greedy and hubristic will lack the wisdom to manage the economy's landing in any way that benefits the country, so f***'em. Literally, for preference -- let's make prison rape work for us! -- but failing that, financially.

I agree they're not bluffing about their willingness to let the country crash and burn if they don't get their way; what I don't agree with one iota is that these same financial wunderkinden who got us into this mess can get us out of it.

Possibly not. I am all in favor of firing these clowns. However, I was referring more to the need to not let AIG go bankrupt. I stated it poorly, but I think the craziness that would lead to a crash is already in place; they threw the steering wheel out the window 18 months ago, and can't change course.

"Or, of course, those pesky contracts. If they exist."

Well, there are things the contracts neither provide for nor prohibit. For instance, if Mr. Obama were to read off a list of those recieving those bonuses they manifestly do not deserve, along with their home addresses and all related phone numbers, email addreses and other means of contacting these people so that concerned taxpayers could encourage them to return the bonuses, there would be nothing in the contract to prevent that; the federal governmemnt is not a party to any of these contracts.

"The goal in Chicken is to make the other guy get out of your way before you crash."

There's more to it than that. the rest of the story is that the undrlying assumption in Chicken is that eother of the players can crush the other. That is quite simply not the case with these people. Because they quite simply are not indispensable.

Myself, I just want them to admit their culpability on TV in front of millions. Is that something that's particularly punitive?

No, that sounds good to me. Ritual humuliation seems quite appropriate in these circumstances. Tanta at CalcRisk last year suggested that the folks on Wall St. be obligated to fill out (in public) all the humiliating paperwork and be subject to the same mandatory credit counseling classes that us po' folk would be subject to in bankruptcy and debt writeoff.

I had a longer comment about the systemic risks of shooting at the individuals responsible and hitting the firms by mistake, but the kitty doesn't like something about my longer comments today (they keep being refused with an error message), so what JMN said at 5:01 pm.

On reflection, I would be happy with announcing that in two weeks time, we will announce the names of employees who took bonuses, and the amounts, unless they agree to give them back and waive any claim to future bonuses between now and then. At least, if no other legal and prudential means of dealing with the problem turn up.

"On reflection, I would be happy with announcing that in two weeks time, we will announce the names of employees who took bonuses, and the amounts, unless they agree to give them back and waive any claim to future bonuses between now and then."

IANAL, but that sounds to me as if it's pushing up against the line of inciting violence. What's the purpose of this if not to harass people? Is this different in some way from posting the names and addresses of doctors and nurses who do abortions?

Gary: I was thinking more along the lines of inciting shunning. If it looked likely to lead to violence, I would oppose it, on the same grounds that lead me to oppose publishing the names of doctors and nurses who perform abortions: it endangers them.

But if it just led to people expressing anger verbally, I don't think I'd have much of a problem with it, especially since it's part of my proposal to give them the chance to decline the bonus. -- I mean, a lot of government employees' salaries are public, and I assume a large part of the reason for that is that we are paying those salaries. The only reason this might be different is that these payments are unconscionable. If their being unconscionable led to violence, I take it back. If to people expressing their displeasure in the supermarket, at church/synagogue/mosque, etc., I'm fine with it.

"If it looked likely to lead to violence"

I'm inclined to think that given the large numbers of people affected, it's unreasonable to expect that everyone concerned will respectfully restrain themselves to verbal objections.

Perhaps I'm overly cynical. But I wouldn't count on universal nonviolence as a response.

If it looked likely to lead to violence, I would oppose it

How do you make the determination that something is likely to lead to violence? I mean, you don't know just how bad the recession will be, so you can't simply assume that these people will face no significant risk. Maybe it would be better for you to come right out and say whether you think we should release their names rather than talk about abstract conditions. Right now, we know precious little about how people will react. So, knowing that, are you in favor or releasing their names or not?

I don't think that shaming will be effective. The opinions of strangers generally don't matter to most people and the opinions of friends and family tend to be swayed by affection. If you release this information, these people and their associates will recast themselves as victims, as those who got left holding the bag, as the brave batmen who must be hunted to sate the public's bloodlust. That'll be completely wrong, but the point is: shunning will not change their lives very much.

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