Monday, March 16, 2009

Nice...AIG Is Paying $165 Million To The People That Ruined The Company

What is going on over at AIG? The latest fiasco coming from AIG is the news that $165 million in bonuses are scheduled to be paid out to the financial products unit. Oh, one other thing, that is the unit that basically bankrupted the company. How on earth are these people still even working for the company, let alone getting bonuses? Typically when someone screws up that much they get fired, not rewarded. Meanwhile the American public is left completely baffled at the situation. So far we have given AIG about $170 billion, — which kept the company in business — and now AIG is telling us that we have to allocate $165 million of this tax payer money to give to the people who caused us to have to pony up the $170 billion to begin with? I know they have some contract things in place and all, but as Laura Wilson from Information Security Resources points out in her blog post below, I'm sure there is a way for us to get around that contract considering the situation. Oh yeah, here is a thought too: how about we FIRE some of these people! There are a lot of good financial people looking for jobs right now, and a little shake up over there might not be such a bad thing.

The plaint that credit default swap-promulgating AIG (AIG) is contractually obligated to pay out millions in bonuses to the same pitted brass that led the company, the industry, and the entire economy off a cliff is a bunch of horse hooey.

If you are on the management team of a company that lays off workers, can’t pay its bills, leaves shareholders holding nothing, and has to take public bailouts, it’s your damn job to make a deal to restructure that company, or wind it down responsibly.

Your bonus is getting to keep porking up to the paycheck trough while other workers are losing salary, severance, and health care.

New York Times: The payments to A.I.G.’s financial products unit are in addition to $121 million in previously scheduled bonuses for the company’s senior executives and 6,400 employees across the sprawling corporation. Mr. Geithner last week pressured A.I.G. to cut the $9.6 million going to the top 50 executives in half and tie the rest to performance.

The payment of so much money at a company at the heart of the financial collapse that sent the broader economy into a tailspin almost certainly will fuel a popular backlash against the government’s efforts to prop up Wall Street. Past bonuses already have prompted President Obama and Congress to impose tough rules on corporate executive compensation at firms bailed out with taxpayer money.

A.I.G., nearly 80 percent of which is now owned by the government, defended its bonuses, arguing that they were promised last year before the crisis and cannot be legally canceled. In a letter to Mr. Geithner, Edward M. Liddy, the government-appointed chairman of A.I.G., said at least some bonuses were needed to keep the most skilled executives.

I sure would like to see those AIG contracts - I’ll bet I can poke a hole in the specious supposition that the company really, really wants to do the right thing, but its little hands are tied. Since the public bailout of AIG, we all have an ownership interest in where the money is going, and are entitled to ask probing questions.

New York Times: “We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses — which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury,” he wrote Mr. Geithner on Saturday.

Still, Mr. Liddy seemed stung by his talk with Mr. Geithner, calling their conversation last Wednesday “a difficult one for me,” and noting that he receives no bonus himself.

“Needless to say, in the current circumstances,” Mr. Liddy wrote, “I do not like these arrangements and find it distasteful and difficult to recommend to you that we must proceed with them.”

I know contracts inside and out, at the real-world, down and dirty level, not the black-box, ivory tower, theoretical stratum that gets adjusted as the tectonic plates of business deals crash into each other.

Although I have chosen not to practice law anymore, I am really good at understanding the terms of these agreements, and evaluating when it would appropriate to reward corporate players for their performance.

And, when it is not.

New York Times: Of all the financial institutions that have been propped up by taxpayer dollars, none has received more money than AIG, and none has infuriated lawmakers (and Ben Bernanke per 60 Minutes) more, with practices that policy makers have called “reckless”

The bonuses will be paid to executives at A.I.G.’s financial products division, the unit that wrote trillions of dollars’ worth of credit-default swaps that protected investors from defaults on bonds which were backed in many cases by subprime mortgages.

The bonus plan covers 400 employees, and the bonuses range from as little as $1,000 to as much as $6.5 million. Seven executives at the financial products unit were entitled to receive more than $3 million in bonuses.

Any attorney who advises that these bonuses are appropriate ought to have his or her head checked.

Base salary, maybe, if not outrageous. No bonus. No severance unless everybody else also received proportionate assistance. Don’t care what the contract says - attack it in bankruptcy or wind down - I saw it many times in the Silicon Valley meltdown.

But the official also said the administration will force A.I.G. to eventually repay the cost of the bonuses to the taxpayers as part of the agreement with the firm, which is being restructured.

AIG’s main business is insurance, but the financial products unit sold hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of derivatives, the notorious credit-default swaps that nearly toppled the entire company last fall. AIG had set up a special bonus pool for the financial products unit early in 2008, before the company’s near collapse, and when problems stemming from the mortgage crisis were just becoming clear.

There were concerns that some of the best-informed derivatives specialists might leave.the company. AIG then locked in $450 million for the financial products unit, and prepared to pay it in a series of installments to encourage people to stay.

This poignant issue is near and dear to me, as I have shut down management bonuses before, even when I would have received some of that money, and even when I really needed it.

I also have been lucky enough to work with one of the premier corporate governance experts in the country and with a bankruptcy and wind down expert whom I hope will end up on the federal bench.

In the past, I have known both of these gentlemen to express support for my assertion that it is appalling for a destitute company to pay out management and deal bonuses to the team that took the company under.

New York Times: A.I.G.’s main business is insurance, but the financial products unit sold hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of derivatives, the notorious credit-default swaps that nearly toppled the entire company last fall.

Under a deal reached last week, A.I.G. agreed that the top 50 executives would get half of the $9.6 million they were supposed to get by March 15. The second half of their bonuses would be paid out in two installments in July and in September. To get those payments, Treasury officials said, A.I.G. would have to show that it had made progress toward its goal of selling off business units and repaying the government.

Nice. You just keep holding that moral compass you got there, guys.

Laura is a business consultant and an advocate for information security, consumer protection, long-term shareholder value, and better management decisions. Her specialty is finding and fixing risks and threats to sensitive data. Her experience includes international banking, credit card, and mortgage companies, venture capital portfolio companies, and software and technology providers. She practiced law in Silicon Valley during the tech boom and meltdown, handling corporate governance and information protection.

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Anonymous said...

A. Edward Liddy could simply refuse to issue the bonuses - say "See you in court!" and let it work its way through the court system in 6 or 7 years.
B. The recipients of the bonuses could do the right thing and refuse to accept the bonuses. But asking a member of the investor class to do the RIGHT thing is like betting on a pro wrestling match...

Anonymous said...

Where is the accountability for these individuals? If I did this as an employee I would loose my job. As a small business owner I would loose my business. How are people going to have confidence in AIG or in the financial markets when it looks like business as usual? People will not have confidence until they see individuals and companies held accountable. Huge bonus,whether due to contracts, do show accountablity.

Ju said...

FALLOUT GROWS: Those who voted for the stimulus supported the clause to protect the AIG's bonuses. Obama's Own Stimulus Bill Protects the AIG Bonuses He Now Condemns —