Swiss bank annual earnings are here so we might as well check in on what they’re up to with comp. You and I may think of comp in pretty straightforward ways – if you did good, and your employer did good, you get paid well, and if not not – but Credit Suisse and UBS take a delightfully arcane wheels-within-wheels approach, constantly changing how they pay employees to send signals, fine-tune incentives, and optimize regulatory capital. I suppose if I worked there I’d be so pleased by the complexity of the edifice that I’d be okay with otherwise disappointing pay. Current employees may disagree.
Anyway we talked about UBS the other day; per the FT they are handing out bonuses in the form of high-trigger CoCo bonds that get written down to zero if UBS’s regulatory capital falls below 7 percent. The bonds “will pay a market-based interest rate” though that’s not saying much; any interest rate is “market-based” in the sense that it can be decomposed into, like, Treasuries plus a number. Presumably the number here is high.
There’s a thing called socially responsible investing where
(1) you invest other people’s money,
(3) but it’s okay because you’re doing it not to make them money but to save the whales, er, penguins, and they like penguins, so they keep paying your fees. This is a good racket as rackets go but it turns out that people mostly don’t like penguins as much as they like money so it is sort of a limited racket. The trick if you can manage it is to appeal to people who like penguins to give you other people’s money, because people typically like penguins more than they like other people having money. This can be great for you and also for penguins, and for the right value of “you” and “penguins” can be a diabolical way to achieve real social good, which is my favorite.
Two great recent stories in that vein. One is a proposal to use eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages and refloat them. The idea, schematically, is (1) seize property,* (2) sell it back to homeowner at fair value, and (3) lend money to the homeowner to pay for the house, which the municipality then uses to pay fair value to the mortgage lender whose collateral was seized in step (1). Any dope of a municipality could presumably get their act together to do (1) and (2), but the problem is (3) coming up with the money for new mortgages to pay fair value to the old mortgagee. You could see why oh I don’t know BANKS would not like this scheme – it will cost them in servicing rights and refinancing fees and second-lien writedowns** – and so the money has to come from non-banks. Some folks think they can find the money, for a small fee of course, and so are roadshowing the idea to municipalities. It seems to be popular in California, go figure.