Author: Lawrence Cunningham

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Silver Lining and Lesson Department

silver lining in a cloud.jpgA compressed portrayal of US failures evident in the current crisis may arise from the following list of representations:

(A) firms: Countrywide, Fannie Mae, AIG, Citigroup, Moody’s, Lehman Brothers, General Motors;

(B) industries: mortgage origination, mortgage finance, insurance, commercial banking, rating agencies, investment banking, automobile manufacturing and finance;

(C) regulators: state mortgage, insurance and banking overseers; Federal Housing Finance Agency; Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission; Federal Reserve, Treasury, Office of Comptroller of the Currency; Federal Deposit Insurance Commission;

(D) lawmakers: Congress, Congress, Congress, Congress, Congress.

What representations do not appear on this list? Deloitte Touche et al, the auditing industry, and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. Three cheers.

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Keynes Warns: A Trillion Here and a Trillion There

financial instability.jpgThe sums are staggering. One million dollars is one thousand thousand dollars. One billion dollars is one thousand million dollars. One trillion dollars is one thousand billion dollars.

The budget that President Obama presents is $3.7 trillion, which is three thousand, seven hundred, billion dollars; that would leave a deficit between outlays and receipts of one thousand, seven hundred billion dollars.

Government remains committed to investing or providing similarly mind-boggling sums buying into large companies, especially banks, and adding similar amounts to get people buying cars, houses, boats and the like, as in the old days. These confounding figures translate into record-level percentages of the total economic output of the economy.

Where does government get all of this money? The government gets much from taxes, on wages, on certain consumption items, on estates, and on interest and investment returns. But it far from relies on those sources, which are formal, transparent and legitimate tools of transferring private resources for public use.

A principal source of government spending, and borrowing, is simply printing money. The Treasury and the Federal Reserve simply issue it, by fiat. Since 1971 when President Nixon withdrew the US from the gold standard, there is no law that limits the government from printing as much as money as it wants, any time, for any purpose.

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President Obama Outlines Fin Reg Reform

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Yesterday afternoon President Obama outlined his approach to financial regulation reform that is undoubtedly coming our way. He named the following seven goals

1. Enforce strict oversight of financial institutions that pose systemic risks

2. Strengthen markets so they can withstand both system-wide stress and failure of large firms

3. Encourage a financial system that is open and transparent.

4. Supervise financial products based on “actual data on how actual people make financial decisions”

5. Hold participants accountable for their actions, “starting at the top”

6. Overhaul regulations so they are comprehensive and free of gaps and do not result in regulatory competition

7. Recognize that the challenges are global

The President said: “Iif we all do our jobs, if we once again guide the market’s invisible hand with a higher principle, our markets will recover. . . . Our economy will once again thrive, and America will once again lead the world in this new century as it did in the last.”

The President also emphasized the following:

“The choice we face is not between some oppressive government-run economy or a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. Rather, strong financial markets require clear rules of the road, not to hinder financial institutions, but to protect consumers and investors, and ultimately to keep those financial institutions strong. Not to stifle, but to advance competition, growth and prosperity. And not just to manage crises, but to prevent crises from happening in the first place, by restoring accountability, transparency and trust in our financial markets.”

Hat Tip: Don Marlais

Photo: Official White House Photo taken during the President’s remarks

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Who Are the “Moneyed Elite”?

hand of gold.jpgInspired by Frank’s post, one wonders who, exactly, are the “moneyed elite” in the United States?

Andrew Sullivan uses the term suggesting a reference to people whose annual incomes run to multi-millions of dollars and whose net worth is accordingly in excess of some $10 million or so.

Another reference appears to the new book Richistan, where the threshold of even the least among the moneyed elite seems to contemplate a net worth of least $1 million (ranging up to $10 million). Annual income is unspecified but supposes average home values of $810,000 which implies incomes of some small multiple of that, certainly exceeding $1 million.

If these are the right parameters to think of the “moneyed elite,” then one wonders about cheering President Obama’s reported tax plan. It reportedly targets tax increases, and reduced tax deductions and credits, at individuals whose annual income is $100,000 (no tax credit) or $125,000 (highest tax rate and least deductions).

Are these really the “moneyed elite” in this country? To be sure, President Bush and Congress ran up an extraordinary deficit the past several years (the figure $1 trillion is heard); President Obama and Congress just passed a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package; and the President and his Treasury Department, with Congressional support, are sustaining the commitment, running to nearly another $1 trillion, to rescue the financial system.

Somebody has to pay for all this. But is it fair to say that imposing higher taxes on people whose incomes are $100,000, $125,000 or even $250,000 (the figure President Obama used in his speech Tuesday night), putting the burden on “the moneyed elite”? It is doubtful that such earners had anywhere near a net worth of $1 million even at the height of the market last year; with the plummeting of asset values since September, moneyed elite, or even affluent, as the New York Times puts it, may not be the best way to describe their financial condition.

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Delaware Gets Tough on National Issues

Del State Seal.gifScholars often detect a strengthening of Delaware corporate law amid national crises that can ignite interest in having the federal government increasingly preempt state corporation law. Two recent cases may support that conjecture, allowing some surprising claims to withstand motions to dismiss:

(1) a claim against AIG’s directors asserting that they presided, with sustained and systemic neglect to control, over what was essentially a “criminal enterprise”; and

(2) a claim against Citigroup’s directors asserting that they committed waste in approving a lavish payout to a departing CEO who presided over the destruction of billions of dollars of wealth at the corporation.

The opinions coincide with rising public outage over executive compensation and strict federal laws capping executive compensation for scores of public companies, mostly banks, but also automobile companies and finance affiliates. They coincide with ongoing frustration over the government’s injection of more than $120 billion into AIG while it continues to report staggering losses reportedly exceeding $50 billion this quarter alone.

Calls will continue for federal legislation that limits corporate executive compensation, taking away Delaware corporation law’s role on the subject; calls may heat up for broader federal preemption of a wide range of state law, certainly in banking and insurance, and just possibly corporation law as well, at least for institutions of systemic significance.

Whether Delaware is really responding to those threats or simply taking the cases on the merits, the two opinions are of considerable interest, even though written merely by the trial court and merely addressing motions to dismiss.

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A-Rod’s Breach of Contract Claim?

Baseball Caps.jpgInspired by Dan’s post on the tort of breach of confidentiality: can a unionized baseball player win breach of contract claims if information the collective bargaining agreement requires to be kept confidential or destroyed is neither destroyed nor kept confidential?

The issue arises concerning public disclosures earlier this month of 2003 steroid test results for Alex Rodriquez that the CBA required the union and/or the league to destroy or keep confidential. Numerous issues appear, both factual and legal.

First, a threshold factual issue: exactly how was the information disclosed? The information was generated in 2003, kept at a third-party lab through April 2004, when federal agents with warrants seized it. The information is evidence in an ongoing government investigation and appears to be under seal by court order. It does not appear that either the union or the league were responsible for the public disclosure, which was reported by Sports Illustrated earlier this month.

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Anti-Lobbying v. Nationalization

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Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner swept into office announcing tough rules restricting lobbying by bank officials of public officials in connection with distribution of federal funds to the banking sector. At the same time, talk continues about how Treasury may yet determine that it is necessary to nationalize some banks. A conflict would appear.

The lobbying rules assume that public officials and bank officials are different categories of people. But if Treasury assumes control of a bank by nationalizing one, Treasury (or some other public official) will appoint bank officials. Then it will be difficult to distinguish between public officials and bank officials. Bank officials will be public officials.

Of course, this is just one of endless anxieties that would accompany any decision to nationalize US banks. Perhaps it is a sign that the Treasury Secretary means it when he says that nationalizing banks is not a desirable course.

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What’s in a [Corporate Stadium] Name?

Citi and Shea Together.jpg

Citigroup and other banks face populist rebuke for executive compensation and lavishness amid a financial crisis the banks may have fomented and resulting undercapitalization that puts them and the financial system on the brink of collapse.

The demotic backlash reaches particularly to Citi’s deal with The New York Mets concerning branding rights associated with the team’s new stadium, Citi Field, scheduled to open this baseball season. Citi has a 20-year contract with the Mets for various marketing programs, including naming the stadium, in exchange for $20 million in annual payments.

Other banks have similar sports-branding deals with other teams. Barclays, the British bank, signed a contract in 2007 on terms substantially similar to the Citi-Mets deal. It agreed to pay $20 million annually for 20 years in connection with promoting the New York Nets basketball team and naming their new arena.

Bank of America has a contract with the Carolina Panthers football team, under which it pays $7 million annually for marketing rights at that team’s stadium, including naming it. Notably, on a per-game basis, that figure is 4 times higher than Citi’s Mets deal and twice as a high as the Barclays deal.

Pressure on Citi heated up in late January when some in Congress demanded that Citi terminate its contract. Citi reportedly gave some thought to terminating the agreement, but promptly quashed speculation that it would do so. Others in Congress support that decision, emphasizing that the contract and marketing arrangements involve business decisions that it is not the job of Congress to second guess or micromanage.

Nevertheless, pressure remains, with a New York Times reporter suggesting the money would be better spent retaining workers, while others defend the deals on the grounds that they help the banks’ economic positions, both through improved branding and associated merchandising transactions.

How should informed people think about the Citi-Mets arrangement, and others, and assess the competing political, business and economic issues implicated?

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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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