The Tipping Point?

$165 million, of course, is less than one-tenth of one percent of the total amount of bailout money given to AIG in one form or another. Yet it may turn out to be the $165 million that broke the camel’s back.The AIG bonus saga neatly encapsulates many of the problems that we have identified with the financial system and with the bailout to date.

  • The bonus contracts – which have still not been released to the public – reflect the instinct of Wall Street to favor its employees over any other stakeholders. In the companies I worked at, it was common practice that all bonus plans were contingent on overall company performance: if the company had no money, you didn’t get any, either. Even our commission plans for sales people included the caveat that the plan could be changed by the CEO at any time for any reason. The fact that AIG did not similarly protect itself shows the Wall Street habit of putting itself first, or a failure to recognize the possibility of a bad year, or, most likely, both.
  • The failure of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to review and renegotiate the bonus plans as a condition of federal assistance last fall – despite the fact that the plans had been public knowledge since May – reflects the rushed, ad hoc nature of the deals that were struck. Or it reflects the understanding in Washington that the ways of Wall Street had to be respected. Or, again, both. And the failure to even say anything about the bonus plans since the initial bailout – even just to get ahead of the obvious public relations fiasco – reflects an overall strategy that amounts to hoping that problems will go away.
  • The seeming inability of the government to do anything but throw up its hands reflects the failed strategy of the bailouts so far: provide as much cash as needed, but do everything you can to minimize the impact on the companies being bailed out. The fact that this is happening at AIG – the one the government has owned 80% of since September – shows that any “nationalization” so far has been a red herring. In a bankruptcy, or a government conservatorship, employees and other creditors would not have a legal right to all of their money. In the current situation, by contrast, AIG management can choose whom it wants to make whole, which is what makes self-dealing and other sweetheart deals possible. In this context, $165 million in employee bonuses pales against tens of billions of dollars of collateral provided to counterparties – beginning with Goldman Sachs. Yes, this was to cover open trading positions. But if AIG had gone bankrupt or had been taken over, it’s not clear that Goldman would have been first in line.
  • The testaments to “the best and the brightest” – here, referring to the people of AIG Financial Products – reflect, I don’t know, either absolute, brazen obscenity, or a world-historical example of making the mistake of believing your own hype. The fact that people on Wall Street believe that they are the best among us is bad enough. The fact that people in Washington are willing to accept it is worse.

However, this scandal may yet serve a purpose. One characteristic of both administrations’ responses to the crisis has been to devise subsidies for the financial sector that are too complicated for even conscientious readers to make out, such as the asset guarantees for Citigroup and Bank of America, or the preferred-to-common conversion for Citigroup. Employee bonuses, by contrast, are strikingly easy to understand.

The key issues throughout this crisis have been political as much as economic. In this case, the Obama administration has been taking a difficult political position – propping up financial institutions in their current form and insisting everything will be OK – when it would have been easier to play the populist card. This was by no means an inescapable choice; according to news reports in February, David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel were in favor of being tougher on the banks. Perhaps the AIG bonus scandal will force the administration’s hand toward the decisive action that we need.

Originally published at the Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "The Tipping Point?"

  1. Attila   March 18, 2009 at 7:02 am

    What a pity that bank robbery has become almost impossible from the outside and so easy from the inside.