Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Show Me the Money

I don’t like the way Ulysses S. Grant is looking at me
“Money changes everything.”

— Some guy, probably without any money

Andrew Ross Sorkin, access journalist extraordinaire and alleged shill for the Great and Good,1 put up a sensible op ed this morning to which I thought I would contribute a few brief supporting remarks. It seems Mr. Sorkin has taken somewhat of a shine to Antonio Weiss, a successful Lazard investment banker whom the current Administration has advanced as its candidate for under secretary of the Treasury for domestic finance, and he has been defending this paragon of sharp-dressed competence against detractors great and small.

Today’s fresh character assassination outrage comes from the capitalist shills [sic] at the AFL-CIO, who have apparently addressed a letter to the boards of several Wall Street banks which takes umbrage at the policy, to be enjoyed by Mr. Weiss among others, that employees leaving their firms for government service can take their unvested pay with them:
Why, the letter asked, do banks routinely pay out special compensation packages to executives who leave to take government jobs when those packages were intended to retain them?

“Unless the position of these companies is that this is just a backdoor way to pay off a newly minted government official to act in Wall Street’s private interests rather than the public interest, it is very difficult to see how these policies promote long-term shareholder value,” the letter declared.
Now Mr. Sorkin waxes poetic and high minded in response to this challenge, nattering on primarily about how we should encourage banks and other employers of bright, shiny, would-be technocrats to doff their gilded yokes of service to Mammon and don the austere chains of public service to the rest of us. He assures us that the interlocking web of influence, conventional group think, and apparent if not actual conflict of interest such revolving door practices engender are indeed problematic, but that the net gain of brilliant, accomplished, successful financiers to the government payroll is worth it, and the aforesaid conflicts can be managed with an unburdensome modicum of care and attention. This is all well and good, and even Your Altruistically Challenged Correspondent can recognize the merits of this argument in the chilly chambers of his frozen heart, but it does not go far enough. As a result, Mr. Sorkin has no compelling response to Big Labor’s additional complaint—bless their capitalist-friendly hearts—that such policies represent a squandering of shareholder value. The thrust of his reply seems to be, yes, these policies cost shareholders money, but they probably help attract some additional members of the Best and Brightest who might have a few public-service-inclined bones in their sleekly coiffured bodies, so that must be a non-numerically-quantifiable Good Thing.

This is unnecessarily weak sauce. Let me explain.

* * *

The principal issue seems to be that our intrepid financial journalist and the shrill harridan of special pleading for labor share a common confusion concerning the payments in question to Mr. Weiss and other would-be servants of the public good. For one thing, they are not special payments at all, as in, “Well done you. Here’s a couple of million or so leafy simoleons to stack alongside your Rembrandts and ill gotten bearer bonds in reward for your selflessness. Remember us kindly.” Rather, when Lazard hands Mr. Weiss a check for twenty million smackeroos give or take on his way out the door, it will be releasing into his sweaty hands money he has already earned.

The distinction which Ms Slavkin Corzo draws between this and what Mr. Weiss, e.g., would receive should he instead choose to decamp from the mahogany clad offices of Lazard for some other investment bank—bupkis, plus a swift kick to the seat of the pants—while correct, misses the point. As Your Tireless Explicateur of All Things Compensatory has often explained on this site, investment bankers are commonly paid substantial portions of the mouthwatering bonuses you read about in the form of what is affectionately known in my industry as “funny money” or “toilet paper”; i.e., deferred compensation. Such deferred compensation usually takes the form of restricted stock which vests over some period of time, phantom stock units, stock options, deferred cash payments, or some other such bullshit which replaces freely spendable legal tender with a conditional promise by one’s employer to pay one the money one has earned in the past sometime in the future, depending.

To illustrate a simple case, a modestly successful senior banker might get “paid” $2 million for her moneymaking efforts over the year, but receive only $250,000 of that in the form of biweekly salary, $500,000 in a cash lump sum payable shortly after the turn of the year, and the balance of $1,250,000 in the form of restricted shares of stock in her employer which vest in equal installments over the next three years.2 Now, should she be so rash as to decide to jump ship from her existing employer to a competitor before the stock she earned by making money for the firm and its shareholders vests, in almost every case she loses it entirely. Given that most bankers stay with their employers for several years and have this or similar pay regimes inflicted on them every year, you can understand that most senior bankers tend to have quite a substantial “nest egg” of deferred pay locked up in restricted shares that are subject to forfeit in such circumstances. This explains why, unless a banker is desperate to switch employers (or, like most Lehman bankers post crash, has unvested stock which is largely worthless anyway), she is likely to extract a large payment from her new employer which is designed to replace the deferred compensation she is giving up by jumping ship. Sadly for her, such replacement payments are almost always granted in the form of—you guessed it—restricted shares with deferred vesting. So, no matter whether she hops from bank to bank like a Mexican jumping bean or stays with one her entire career, a successful senior banker is likely to have accumulated several if not tens of millions of dollars of deferred pay for her pains. The only way off this treadmill is to die, retire completely from investment banking, or, yes, join the government or some other non-competitive corporate entity.

Seen in this light, the forfeiture of unvested pay which a banker suffers when she leaves for a competitor is not the avoidance of further payment but rather the recapture or clawback of previously earned and allocated compensation. Little Muffy got “paid” those two million clams because she made, let’s say, ten million clams for her firm and its shareholders. Those ten million clams were real, deposited and cleared cash money,3 which paid real creditors and light bills and lap dance club dues and which, after said normal course operating expenses and the government’s rake were creamed off the top, were distributed to shareholders in the form of dividends and/or retained capital. Little Muffy only got $750,000 of that munificence and was forced, mutatis mutandis, to extend the balance as a long term interest free loan to the company.4 Sure, the shareholders face eventual dilution when and if Muffy’s shares vest, but until this happens they haven’t really fully paid her for her services. Other things being equal, shareholders should be delighted when bankers resign to work for competitors, because all those unvested share awards are cancelled and they retroactively get all those bankers’ revenue production for below market rates.

Of course, other things often are not equal, and investment banks usually have to replace the departed bankers with new ones, sometimes from other firms for which they have to allocate a lump sum of restricted shares out of treasury that negates all the wonderful savings shareholders got from the resignations. In this respect, deferred banker compensation is sort of like a hot potato: you can pass it around, but somebody is going to have to hold it as long as the banker is working in the business.

* * *

Ergo, paying Mr. Weiss and any other loyal bankers who decamp from our industry’s fetid shores for the sweetness and light of public service (or some other employment which does not try to take money out of the mouths of investment bankers) harms shareholders virtually not at all. It does normally accelerate payment of any unvested shares or other deferred compensation, which eliminates the present value discount of deferral which shareholders otherwise enjoy, but in point of fact all such payments do is give their departing employees the pay the firm has promised them for work already done. It is a greedy and incontinent shareholder who cannot agree to that.

In fact, politically ambitious investment bankers who have a notion they might like to try public service eventually usually negotiate explicit conditions in their employment agreements up front to pay all unvested compensation in just such circumstances, and banks are happy to agree to them. It is no skin off their shareholders’ noses, it renders contractual the right thing to do, which is to pay your employees what you have agreed to pay them, and it may even generate some goodwill or at least friendly feeling in someone who might be leaning over the dais at a future Senate probe or showing up to your Executive Suite with a raft of burly auditors on Christmas Eve. It’s not bribery. It’s just good business. Plus, as Mr. Sorkin avers, it’s probably socially constructive as well.

Only an ungrateful son of a bitch of an investment bank shareholder cannot appreciate that. But I’m being redundant.

Related reading:
Andrew Ross Sorkin, Encouraging Public Service, Through the ‘Revolving Door’ (New York Times DealB%k, December 2, 2014)
Defending the Indefensible (September 22, 2012)
Five Pound Box of Money (February 9, 2009)

1 Hey, even the Great and Good need positive PR. Besides, notwithstanding populist firebrands’ complaints, it does add materially to the public weal to have someone reporting directly from inside the belly of the Beast, and the Beast needs to give someone access to his belly for that to happen. What, you think John Mack was going to recount his conversations with Tim Geithner during the financial crisis to Yves Smith?
2 Don’t get hung up on the bigness (or smallness, bless you Executive Committee members) of these numbers, children. Yes, even modestly successful investment bankers can make what in normal circumstances can rightly appear to be a metric shit-ton of money, but that is not the point of this illustration. Think about all that money tied up in restricted shares which little Muffy Megabucks thinks is rightfully hers for revenues and hopefully profits she already earned for her employer. Can’t do it? Never mind, then, you might as well switch over to BuzzFeed.
3 For clarity and simplicity I am assuming these revenues were really earned funds, like fees from closed M&A transactions or security underwriting. The same argument carries less force when the money a banker “earns” for the firm is, e.g., the calculated and booked net present value profit for a long-term trade which remains at risk for the entire term of the trade, as my colleagues on the sales and trading side of the industry are so fond of claiming.
4 The “principal” of which, by the way, is tied to the actual, fluctuating stock price of her employer’s shares, which can work either to her benefit or to her lasting despair (Lehman Brothers). Deferred stock is calculated as a number of shares at the time when compensation is set, not when the shares vest. The holder is exposed to changes in the firm’s stock price over the entire vesting period.

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

His Dark Materials

Wondrous are the works of Man, but more wondrous still are those of Heaven.
Joseph Wright, Arkwright’s Cotton Mills by Night, c. 1782
The best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t. … He’s not available because he’s not a being of a kind that would fit into our availability. … If God were knowable, why would we believe in him?

Anne Carson

* * *

All religions [have] at least one common commandment: “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul.”

— Frank Herbert, Dune

* * *

Seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it needed.

We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.

— Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials

Do not forget to build the Republic of Heaven where you are, my friends, starting with your family and friends this holiday season. Most of us have no more important work, and most of us will leave no more lasting legacy than this.

Happy Thanksgiving.

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Regrets, I’ve Had a Few

Don’t look back
Auguste Rodin, Orpheus and Eurydice, 1893
Martin Blank: “I’m sorry if I fucked up your life.”
Debi Newberry: “It’s not over yet.”

— Grosse Pointe Blank

Why do we regret life choices? In retrospect, some are decisions with serious and long lasting consequences we make carelessly, hastily, or without due consideration to relevant factors clearly available to our decision making process at the time. They are important choices poorly made. These are good candidates for regret, because we think to ourselves, “If only I had thought more clearly, or taken more time, or investigated my options more carefully, I could have accomplished something important I would have wanted at the time and perhaps still do.” These are the kind where our overwhelming impulse is to kick ourselves for being so stupid, blind, or rash. And we are right to do so. If you are like me, Dear Readers, these are the decisions I cringe to remember, and for which my ears burn with embarrassment.

Others are choices we make deliberately, carefully, with all due attention to the facts as we know them, but that turn out to be wrong, or have unanticipated negative consequences which would have made us choose differently had we foreseen them. These regrets take the form, “If only I had known…” But these are properly weaker regrets, because they hinge on counterfactuals which we instinctively if not explicitly realize were not in our control: information which would have made us change our minds was hidden or unavailable to us, or—a special case of the foregoing—future conditions which we relied upon in making our decision changed after we decided, thereby undermining our intent. Human beings operate with bounded rationality, and even the best and most conscientious decision maker can be foiled by unknown (and perhaps unknowable) data and the vicissitudes of an uncertain future. The consequences may be just as bad, in retrospect, as those arising from a bad decision poorly made—or even worse—but it is pointless to beat yourself up too much for choices you made without considering information completely unavailable to you. Someone who gives more than a passing shrug of regret for the abandoned winning lottery ticket they failed to pick up off the street has their priorities and sense of the possible all messed up.

Still others are good decisions, carefully made, incorporating a complete set of relevant data and good anticipation of future developments, that we later come to regret because we discover we no longer want what we thought we did at the time. Perhaps these are just another subset of the second kind, where the unknown facts we did not incorporate into our decision process are future changes to our values or priorities. But these regrets are often the most troubling, because we are stuck with bad consequences we did not anticipate for which we can blame no-one but ourselves. Nobody hid any data from us, we weighed the pros and cons carefully, and the future played out just as we expected, but now the successful results of our decisions prevent us from realizing other desires or values that are just as or more important to us. This kind of regret often is a natural consequence of the normal process of aging, as young people make important and often irreversible life decisions they later come to regret as older individuals.

* * *
And so we get examples like this, where a 46-year-old banker complains on Reddit that his choices as a young man—for security, wealth, and a successful career—have resulted in a broken marriage, estrangement from his son, and the abandonment of cherished dreams of writing, travel, and adventure he had when he was young. According to his story, he did not make choices rashly or irresponsibly; if anything, his complaint seems to be based in part on his opinion that he chose too cautiously. I will not judge this man’s life choices or his current situation, other than to observe that perhaps his real faults are blindness and inattention.

Why should anyone expect that decisions once made should never be revisited or reexamined in light of changing circumstances or changed desires? Even in our blessed state of deferred decision making in the developed world, many of us begin to pick mates, careers, and life paths while we are still in our twenties, when maturity-wise we are little more than children. Not only should we expect our values and priorities to change with age and circumstance, we should be alert to the fact that many of the decisions we make will be impossible or very difficult to undo. This is naturally hard for young people—I speak from experience, having been one—since the general existential assumption of youth is that time is unlimited and life is one endless series of sequential possibilities. The notion that, for example, having and raising children will impose dramatic limitations on one’s freedom and possibilities for personal fulfillment for decades in one’s young and middle adulthood doesn’t even occur to most twenty-somethings, except in some sort of intellectual sense, which is to say: not at all.

Of course this lesson—and many others which cranky oldsters like me try to impart on a regular basis to succeeding generations—is almost always only learned by personal experience. I remember having gauzy, exciting dreams of adventure and possibility as a twenty-something myself. Most of them, in retrospect, were pretty unrealistic, naive, or just silly. I don’t regret not trying to pursue them now because I realize they likely would have been a disappointing waste of time. In contrast, the adventure and excitement in my actual life have come from the commitments I have made, like marriage, children, and a career, because almost all of them required, in some form or another, a blind leap of faith into the unknown. Has it all been peaches and cream? Absolutely not, but it has been an adventure.

And, lest you sink into a youthful funk contemplating an endless vista of diaper changing, weekend soccer games, and college application trials as the entirety of your ineluctable fate, take heart. The good news about adulthood is that is doesn’t necessarily crush your dreams. It just gives you new ones. You just need to be alert to discovering them.

* * *

Of course, a looming sense of mortality can be salutary, too. There’s nothing like lagging energy, mysterious aches and pains, and strange growths discovered in the mirror to drum into your consciousness that your time here is limited and precious. Adventure and excitement can often be found right in your own backyard, if you know where to look:

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

— John Lennon

Hey, I warned you it all isn’t peaches and cream.

Related reading:
Turn the Page (December 31, 2011)
Walking Song (December 18, 2011)
Can’t Buy Me Love (April 29, 2012)

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

What Is It Like to Be a Banker?

Oh sure, blame the bat. What the heck, we’re easy targets.
Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon.

— Thomas Nagel, inveterate optimist

Whilst conducting primary research into the ontological foundations of metaphysical epistemology recently, O Dearly Beloved, Your Dilatory and Shockingly Remiss Correspondent happened upon a previously unpublished draft of Thomas Nagel’s seminal paper, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” I found upon examination of the disintegrating foolscap moldering in dank archives that this eminent philosopher had initially attempted to frame his gedankenexperiment with an empathic exercise even more challenging than imagining himself to be a member of the genus Microchiroptera. Given its patent interest for the history of analytical philosophy and its relevance to issues of concern cognate to this blogsite, I thought I would share the pertinent excerpt with you:
I assume we all believe that bankers have experience. After all, they are human beings, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that accountants or baristas or firemen have experience. I have chosen bankers instead of lawyers or politicians because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bankers, although arguably more closely related to us than those other examples, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited banker knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.

I have said that the essence of the belief that bankers have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a banker. Now we know that most bankers (investment bankers, to be precise) perceive the external world primarily by money sense, or moolah-location, detecting the reflections, from monetary instruments or securities within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent jingling or rustling of exchangeable claims to value, and the information thus acquired enables bankers to make precise discriminations of denomination, fungibility, composition, and theft-prevention protections comparable to those we make by vision. But banker money sense, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a banker. We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the banker from our own case, and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion.

Fortunately for the history of analytic philosophy, Professor Nagel apparently abandoned this initial foray as unworkable and, frankly, too outrageous and incomprehensible for anyone but specialists in the study of Homo investmentbankerensis. His revised paper, reframed to less ambitious dimensions, seems to have gone on to some renown, notwithstanding his execrable timidity.

Fortunately for you and everyone like you, I am led to believe there is a minor blogsite located somewhere in cyberspace which tackles these recondite issues head on. Perhaps you can drop me a postcard if you find it.

By the way, is that a $20 bill in your pocket?

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

For a watchman, he has remarkably few clothes. Or weapons.
Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze, 1876
“If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue
of your office, to be no true man; and, for such
kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them,
why the more is for your honesty.”

— William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

Francine McKenna of re: The Auditors recently expressed her dismay that the Big Four accounting firms have continued to be noticeably remiss about engaging reputable accounting firms to audit their own in-house broker dealer arms. The litany Ms McKenna recites of well-known and less-than-well-known failures and deficiencies public accounting firms have been accused of by the PCAOB and the SEC concerning audits of third party broker dealer clients is certainly eye-opening, and it does not give the casual reader much confidence they are sufficiently capable and diligent in this area. However, Ms McKenna’s central concern is a different one: in order to provide legally mandated audits of their own broker dealer units, the Big Four must hire unrelated third party audit firms, and the firms they have hired are tiny, no-name, no-account nobodies.

This, on its face, appears to worry Ms McKenna, and it is reasonable to presume it should worry the rest of us who are less informed about the ins and outs of public accounting than she. However, while I profess absolutely no expertise or credentials in the area of public accounting, I do have an insight into the facts of the matter which may allay some of Ms McKenna’s and her audience’s concerns.

For one thing, as a lawyer who read her post inquired, the curious among you Delightful People might wonder why public accounting firms have broker dealer subsidiaries in the first place. Well, the answer to that—notwithstanding the corporate doublespeak Ms McKenna cites from the firms in question—is quite simple: they like to do investment banking. They like the fees, they like the prestige, and they are often thrown into situations where clients do hire them to provide capital raising or M&A advice. In particular, the Big Four accounting firms have over the years developed a huge and thriving business providing financial due diligence, accounting, and audit services to private equity firms in connection with the latter’s frenetic buying, managing, and selling of companies. Private equity firms, the cognoscenti among you may recall, are paragons of corporate outsourcing, and because they normally consist of three ex-investment bankers, a part-time bookkeeper, and the bookkeeper’s dog, they must employ an army of outside lawyers, consultants, and advisors every time they want to do a deal. Chief among these, of course—save the ineluctable lawyers—are accountants, since virtually none of the private equity professionals are qualified accountants, either (nor can they be bothered to take time from dealmaking to tot up balance sheets, income statements, or other such trivia).1

Private equity firms are occasionally willing to hire accounting firms as deal advisors in addition to their accounting duties because 1) what the hell, they’re already neck deep in the numbers anyway, 2) they may owe the accounting firms some love for the last ten deals which blew up and for which the PE firm accordingly stiffed them on their accounting fees (“We’ll make it up to you next time”), and 3) they’re normally much cheaper than real investment bankers. So Big Four accounting firm partners are always wheedling and cajoling their financial sponsor clients to let their pet investment bankers “do something,” and sometimes the PE guys let them. By the same token, relationship managers at public accounting firms are always looking to soak their corporate audit clients for additional fees, and the occasional corporate client decides to use his audit firm’s in-house bankers to raise some financing or do some small acquisition or divestiture, often for similar reasons to the PE guys.2

* * *

Now the trick is, of course, that if you decide to offer M&A advice or capital raising services to anyone, including PE firms and corporate clients, the redoubtable SEC requires you by law to register as a broker dealer. This is based on the notion, as I have explained elsewhere, that such services normally entail recommendations concerning the purchase and sale of securities, which is the third rail of financial market regulation in this country. Unfortunately, the law currently makes no distinction between a small band of semi-retired corporate development guys who advise on one or two deals per year and a globe-straddling colossus like Goldman Sachs. The former can just as well operate out of a suitcase. The latter not only advises on billions of dollars of M&A and raises billions of dollars of capital for its institutional clients, but also maintains client accounts, handles funds, and does all sorts of other security-related things for a much broader range of retail and institutional clients. Both are, de jure, “broker dealers,” and both require annual audits.

But if all you do is agency business like advising institutional clients on M&A and raising private debt or equity funds from institutional clients, the types of things which the SEC wants to check you are doing or not doing are relatively few and uncomplicated. For example, they want to know whether you are taking custody of or handling client funds at any point (normally no) or, if you are raising funds from institutional investors, you have controls in place to make sure they are indeed qualified for the deals you offer. They want to make sure you have written policies and procedures and adequate capital to support the business you conduct. But the financial complexity of a pure agency advisory business is very low. You have fee revenue, compensation expense, unreimbursed marketing and T&E expense, and other general and administrative expenses. The balance sheet and retained capital you require to run such a business is minimal. From an auditor’s perspective, it is a pretty darn simple business to audit.

And this, as I understand it, is what the broker dealer units of the Big Four accounting firms do. They are not taking custody of client funds, investing money on behalf of customers, or maintaining large sales and trading platforms which operate across multiple geographies and markets. Notwithstanding the size and complexity of the Big Four, their broker dealer platforms have got to be pretty trivial. Accordingly, it makes sense that they have chosen to hire pissant little audit firms to satisfy their SEC-mandated requirements because 1) their businesses are simple enough to be adequately audited by a couple CPAs operating out of a strip mall and 2) the strip mall CPAs are going to be a hell of a lot cheaper than a larger firm. This latter point is important since it is likely—and Ms McKenna confirms it in the case of PwC—that most of these broker dealer arms are either losing money or making a pittance.

Now if this is not true, and Ernst & Young is running a hedge fund like MF Global inside its broker dealer or selling restricted biotech warrants to unqualified widows and orphans, then obviously none of the above is true or adequate. But if that is the case, I think E&Y and the SEC have a much bigger problem than Ms McKenna has tentatively identified.

Related reading:
Francine McKenna, When Big Four Audit Firms Need an Audit They Choose Cheap (Medium, October 14, 2014)
Francine McKenna, Update: The Shoemaker’s Children… The Big Four And Their Own Broker-Dealers (re: The Auditors, October 27, 2014)
In Loco Parentis (April 13, 2014)

1 This is in sad contrast, regular readers of these scribblings will recall, to private equity firms’ endemic reluctance to hire M&A advisors like Yours Truly for the combined reasons that 1) PE professionals believe they can do deals themselves and 2) doing deals, unlike accounting, is fun.
2 In the UK and Europe, where I understand public accounting firms have a closer historical and statutory advisory relationship to their clients, they actually maintain a relatively robust position in the advisory league tables for mid-sized and smaller deals, unlike their poorer American cousins. When it comes to big public deals, however, investment banks dominate there as they do here.

© 2014 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.