Category: Corporate Finance

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State Law Guidance for Treasury Investment Program

Del State Seal.gifAs the US Treasury Department continues to lend to or make senior equity investments in corporate America, especially its financial institutions, people debate whether those taxpayer investments should be accompanied by limits on investees’ right to pay cash dividends to common stockholders.

This is a fundamental issue in corporate finance, requiring mediation of a tension between senior investors, who want security of repayment, and common (junior) stockholders, who want periodic returns on their investment.

The balance and how to resolve it is reflected in state corporation law regulating dividends. In general, those laws provide a minimum level of protection to senior lenders and equity holders, restricting distributions to common stockholders to minimize bankruptcy risk, and assuring that a corporation has flexibility to make such distributions.

A review of state corporation law approaches may be useful to assess what policies Treasury should consider when investing taxpayer funds in senior loans or equity in corporate America. The review suggests that: (1) Treasury may go too far if it prohibits cash dividends altogether; and (2) tools it is developing to assess investee’s positions, called stress tests, routinely used under some state statutes to determine the legality of distributions to common stockholders, should be applied to determine, on a case by case basis, to what extent, if any, government investment of taxpayer funds should be conditioned on investees’ restricting dividends on common stock.

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New Treasury’s Shackled Dividend Policy

shackles.jpgGovernment is treating the country to a national conversation on corporate finance, focusing on a tension between common stockholders of corporations and those who lend or buy preferred stock. The government is deep into the business of lending or buying preferred stock with taxpayer money; the public is interested to know how secure those positions are and how likely they are to reinvigorate private investment in public companies.

While the Bush Administration made loans and bought preferred stock without insisting on many restrictions, the Obama Administration proposes a more restrictive posture. Both struggle with the inherent tension in corporate finance between protecting creditor and senior equity interests, on the one hand, and providing common (junior) stockholders with periodic returns on investment through dividends on the other.

Creditors and senior equity holders want assurance of repayment, so the temptation may be to prohibit common stock dividends entirely. This temptation explains why many populist critics rebuked Bush Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, for lending or investing in corporations without restricting their right to pay cash dividends to common stockholders. The rebuke may also explain Obama Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s opposite proposal to prohibit such dividends, although this populist stance may prolong rather than shorten the current capital crisis.

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Two Ways to do Government Corp Fin

Money Bags.jpgThe United States government is one of the largest, and few, investors in corporate finance deals these days. Congress authorized Treasury to use up to $350 billion in government funds to invest in corporate America (with a contingent increase of another $350 billion). Its authorization to Treasury is very broad, and has allowed it to make any form of investment (mostly but not exclusively in financial institutions), on such terms as the Treasury Secretary deems advisable.

The approach to investing these funds appears strikingly different between Bush Administration Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Paulson took a tailored, deal by deal approach. He never published clear guidelines concerning in which companies he would invest. Sometimes he invested by lending and sometimes in preferred stock. Sometimes he’d negotiate for covenants from the other side and sometimes he would not. He did not publicize resulting investment contracts. In general, he did not impose covenants on investees, such as restrictions on making asset distributions to common stockholders, although in some cases he did extract those concessions (e.g., with General Motors Acceptance Corporation).

Geithner on Tuesday issued a general template for his investment program. He has published guidelines for what investees must do to earn his investments. They have to explain how they will use funds, requiring that they be used to run the business, not hoarded, meaning, for banks, lending money to customers. Investees have to make monthly reports to Treasury showing how they used the funds to make loans or support loans made by other institutions. Investees must undergo a threshold financial stress test, assessing their financial position, and capital needs.

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Jonathan Lipson’s Auto Immune: The Detroit Bailout and the Shadow Bankruptcy System

lipson.JPG[Jonathan Lipson has been a terrific, episodic, contributor to CoOp on the bankruptcy aspects of the financial crisis and the bailout. He approached me about posting the following very useful set of thoughts about the auto-mess, which I'm happy to now share with you.]

Today’s New York Times reports that President Bush now recognizes that the auto industry’s disease may be worse than the bankruptcy “cure.”

Despite ominous threats that the administration would leave the industry to an “orderly reorganization”, the President is now apparently willing to release about $17 billion in TARP funds, to save the auto industry (at least for a while) from Chapter 11.

According to the Times, the President now believes that:

bankruptcy was not a workable alternative. “Chapter 11 is unlikely to work for the American automakers at this time,” Mr. Bush said, noting that consumers would be unlikely to purchase cars from a bankrupt manufacturer.

While I am ordinarily a cautious supporter of the Chapter 11 reorganization system — and suspect much of today’s trouble could have been averted (or at least minimized) if Bear Stearns had been permitted to go through Chapter 11 — I think this is probably the right move, albeit for the wrong (stated) reasons.

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Rational Actors and the Economic Crisis

I missed this when it originally happened, but you should read Richard Posner’s take on the financial crisis, as delivered to Columbia law students.

Posner devoted the bulk of his presentation to outlining the myriad motivations behind the excessive risks. What disturbs him most, he said, is that all of the risk-takers – from CEOs to the day traders to home buyers – were behaving rationally, which free-marketers such as Posner generally believe should act as a bulwark to protect against such catastrophes.

The bankers, for example, were rational in betting on mortgage-backed securities and other housing-related investments, even long after they recognized that their entire industry was, in fact, standing deeply inside an enormous, overstretched bubble. “Even if you know you’re in a bubble, it’s extremely difficult to get out,” said Posner. Pulling up stakes before the bubble explodes means telling investors to expect smaller short-terms rewards. “I think that is a very hard sell,” he said.

Besides, Posner added, when investors want to balance their portfolios, they will do it themselves with, say, bonds or treasuries. The purpose of the high-risk funds is to take the high risks necessary to generate the outsized profits.

Posner also cited the win-win structure of most top executives’ contracts: If their high-risk decisions result in big gains they receive huge bonuses, and if the gambles fail they result in huge severance packages. He noted the $161.5 million awarded last year to outgoing Merrill Lynch chief Stanley O’Neil. “Very, very generous compensation incentivizes executives to maximize their short-term profits,” he added.

Boards of directors, Posner lamented, are hardly “reliable agents of shareholders.” With compensation in the high six-figures for positions that require them to attend only a few meetings per year, board members would need to act against their own self-interest to contest a CEO’s plus-size salary – which wouldn’t exactly be rational.

“This is rational behavior. This is troublesome for economists,” Posner said. “You can have rationality and you can have competition, and you can still have disasters.”

Though he said he wanted to end the presentation on a high note, Posner seemed to have trouble finding one.

There is much here to agree with, particular Judge Posner’s skepticism about the efficacy of regulation. But I’m not as convinced (as he is) that this story is best explained as a failure of perfectly maximizing actors. Indeed, as the story describes his position, it sounds like many of the agents were not maximizing at all. Why, for instance, could bankers not convince (purported) rational investors that we were in a bubble? The best reason, which Posner hints at, is overoptimism bias. Why aren’t executives’ contracts structured for long-term return instead of short-term profit taking? Wouldn’t rational boards and rational executives prefer a smooth future income stream? I’ve got to think that a rich account of compensation behavior would take into account both the tournament effect and risk aversion. And why isn’t there a better market for board members? Could it be some kind of bias against out-groups?

Our Wonderful Financial Sector: Alchemy + Gotcha Capitalism

The PBS program NOW features an excellent discussion of the crucial role of the ratings agencies in the current financial meltdown–and a good page of background materials. Professors Frank Partnoy and Joseph Stiglitz discuss how “top PhD’s” and “math geniuses” seduced investors into accepting assumption-ridden models. Maria Hinojosa asks one of the rocket scientists: “You just said you didn’t have sufficient data to make [these] huge assumption[s]. This is astounding. If you didn’t have the data, and you’re a data-based credit rating agency, why not walk away?” The only answer: incredible revenue potential for rubber-stamping the bad paper. Hinojosa grills many players at the heart of the industry, and tells the full story behind the brazen email messages and IMs:

“it could be structured by cows and we would rate it”

“model definitely does not capture half the risk”

“let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters :o)”

That’s the essence of the Wall Street we are now spending untold (and apparently unknowable) billions to bail out–gloating emoticons over opportunistic profiteering. The three CEOs of the ratings agencies earned $80 million themselves over the past 6 years. As Nobelist Stiglitz has stated, we have a “peculiar form of capitalism” in America–“wizards of Wall Street walk away with the profits, and taxpayers are stuck with the losses.” CDOs were the new fool’s gold for Wall Street’s alchemists.

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The Shock Doctrine Meets Tax Law

Naomi Klein could have predicted it. As panic over the financial crisis set in, the US Treasury department put into action a “two-decade effort by conservative economists and Republican administration officials” to eviscerate a limit on tax shelters.

In the midst of this late-September drama, the Treasury Department issued a five-sentence notice that attracted almost no public attention. But corporate tax lawyers quickly realized the enormous implications of the document: Administration officials had just given American banks a windfall of as much as $140 billion. . . .

Until the financial meltdown, its opponents thought it would be nearly impossible to revamp [Section 382 of the tax code -- a provision that limited a kind of tax shelter arising in corporate mergers] because this would look like a corporate giveaway, according to lobbyists. . . . [According to other experts,] “It was a shock to most of the tax law community. It was one of those things where it pops up on your screen and your jaw drops,” said Candace A. Ridgway, a partner at Jones Day, a law firm that represents banks that could benefit from the notice. “I’ve been in tax law for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Finance Committee, was particularly outraged and had his staff push for an explanation from the Bush administration, according to congressional aides. . . [But] “[w]e’re all nervous about saying that this was illegal because of our fears about the marketplace,” said one congressional aide, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “To the extent we want to try to publicly stop this, we’re going to be gumming up some important deals.”

Lee A. Sheppard, a tax attorney who is a contributing editor at the trade publication Tax Analysts [has stated;] “We’re left now with congressional Democrats that have spines like overcooked spaghetti. So who is going to stop the Treasury secretary from doing whatever he wants?”

Which makes one wonder–where will the main engineers of this giveaway be working after they leave Treasury? How richly will they be rewarded for their policy innovation? Or was this more a form of “return on investment,” rather than the kind of service that generally garners tips? As Gretchen Morgenson has written, more transparency, please.

Parasitism, Inc.: A Deficient Markets Hypothesis

elgrecomoney.jpgAccoring to an article by Jonathan Ford of Prospect, the finance sector gobbled up nearly 35% of total corporate profits in the US and Britain in 2005. As financier-turned-academic Paul Woolley observes in the piece, “There is no economic merit in a sector that makes exceptional profits and devours capital and labour, and then justifies it on the grounds that you can get some ‘cash back.'”

Woolley’s analysis animates the article and should wake up anyone still complacent about the validity of the “efficient markets hypothesis.” Ford points out a cozy revolving door relationship between academics, regulators, and tycoons in high finance. All were complicit in a parasitic reallocation of money from the real economy to speculative games designed to enhance cream-skimming at the top:

While the efficient market idea held sway, academics viewed the expansion of finance with equanimity. . . . Financial instruments always existed for a purpose—such as to pass on risk cheaply and efficiently to the investor best placed or most willing to bear it. If that were not the case these products simply would not exist. More trading was beneficial because it enhanced liquidity, and liquidity lowers costs and promotes efficient pricing.

But, according to Woolley, the scale of derivatives trading should be seen as symptomatic of distorted markets. . . . [M]omentum causes mispricing which in turn creates an insatiable demand for active management. This then spills into the derivatives markets in various ways. For instance, the investor responds to the volatility of the equity market by hedging his risk and buying a put option (giving the right to sell shares at a pre-determined price). The seller of the put protects his own exposure by selling equities. The investor has thus brought about, at a cost, the very event he was seeking to insure against.

Both Ford and Woolley still endorse “market solutions” to the crisis, such as “lengthening the period over which performance is assessed,” so that bonuses depend less on quarterly and annual results. Dilip Abreu has proposed similar realignment of incentives for ratings agencies. But I’d like to see more public involvement in investment decisions generally–a move featured in the stimulus plan Timothy Canova has suggested.

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Exposing Your Inner Socialist

mao.jpegYou’ve probably heard, or maybe even taken, the Implicit Association Test relating to racial bias. Now comes an IAT for policy, and specifically views on regulation and markets. I took the test, and was surprised to find that I’m not quite as pro-market as I thought. According to the test,

“Your IAT score is 0.24, which suggests a slight automatic preference for Regulations compared to Markets.”

At least it wasn’t a moderate preference! Anyway, this is an interesting test — if well-designed, it would seem to be another way to excavate underlying policy preferences, roughly supporting the cultural cognition project’s work. (A correlation between c.c. measures and IAT results would be neat.)

That said, I am a little unhappy with the specific measures the study uses. In particular, as you will see if you take the test, the proxies for regulation are exceedingly general – Congress, statutes, etc. — and for markets sometimes more specific – stock exchange. There are a few salient problems. First, right now might be a bad time to use “stock exchange” in a test. Why not something more innocuous and wholesome: farmers’ market; e-bay, etc.? Second, when people think about regulation, I don’t think they think about Congress: they are much more specific. I made tons of errors on the test, because I had some difficulty associating the test’s general measures with either markets or regulation. Or to put it another way, at no point could I just relax and hit the keys. I had to focus and concentrate the whole time.

(H/T: The Situationalist)

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Are Pitchforks Next?

Astor_Place_Riot,_1849.jpg

This is a story from last week that should have gotten more attention. Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman, was knocked out by one of his bankers as he worked out in the firm’s in-house gym in London.

“He was on a treadmill with a heart monitor on. Someone was in the corner, pumping iron and he walked over and he knocked him out cold.”

Very satisfying! Especially since Fuld had been puffing up Lehman’s chances over the preceding several weeks. (Whether that sales talk should be actionable in light of the psychology of Lehman’s fall – i.e., whether you should be able to puff yourself out of a bank run – is an interesting legal question.)

It would be useful for policymakers to think about ways to channel this kind of anger productively. For violations of the duty of loyalty, we’re already talking about leaving corporate executives naked, homeless, and without wheels. But what can we do about “mere” incompetence that imposes severe social costs? As I’ve been telling my corporate law class these last few weeks, current doctrine provides very weak to nonexistent remedies for negligence, no matter how widely its effects are felt. This doctrine is based on an empirical intuition about the relationship between law, risk-taking and entrepreneurship. That is, the law assumes that business risk-taking requires a special kind of legal immunity, and is particular liable to be badly judged in hindsight. I suspect that both of these assumptions are wrong, and hope that the present crisis presents a useful forum to think about our current corporate-negligence regime more critically.

Otherwise, I fear the fire next time.

(H/T: Reader/Student S.D.; Image Source: Wikicommons, the Astor Place Riot of 1849)