Sheila Bair

Reuters has a delightful story today about Wells Fargo’s merchant banking business, Norwest Equity Partners, which owns among other things the quite horribly named rifle maker Savage Sports. I can’t get too worked up about the likelihood that a fifty-year-old, smallish ($3.7bn), carefully managed, moderately gun-toting, otherwise wholesome private equity business will bring down the global financial system, but then I’m not Sheila Bair:

“Is that really what you want institutions that have safety net support doing? Is that an appropriate use for a government backstop?” she told Reuters.

I dunno, Sheila. Who is “you”? What do you want institutions doing? Something, right?

The point of the Reuters story is mainly that the Volcker Rule is expected to limit banks’ ability to invest in private equity funds, but that Norwest’s business is likely to be exempt because it runs only Wells’ own money. If you put bank money in a separate PE fund with outside investors it’s caught up in the Volcker Rule, but if you just make private-equity-type investments on your own it is not. This is no way to run a railroad: Read more »

As you may have heard, earlier today, Citigroup announced that CEO Vikram Pandit would be resigning from his post at the bank, effective immediately, along with several longtime lieutenants. While the news came as a shock to Wall Street, it was assumed that on the inside, employees had been given some advanced warning and time to get used to the idea of life without Uncle Vik. That they weren’t just realizing now those hugs on the elevator Monday had been their last. That he’d stashed something away for them to remember him by. (A one dollar bill with this face on it. A glossy 8X10 photo to keep on their desks. SOMETHING.) That he hadn’t just left in the middle of the night. Unfortunately for those who’ve grown quite attached to Vickles since he took the reigns in 2007, however, that’s exactly what happened.

The news of Mr. Pandit’s departure after five years atop the company came as a shock to Citigroup employees, including senior executives. In the firm’s London office, some executives emerged from a meeting and read the news on their computers and Bloomberg terminals, well before the bank’s internal memo was released. Soon a dozen employees were crowded in front of television monitors, following the story on financial business shows. Others were seen around a water cooler on the trading floor, discussing the news. Still others retreated to their desks to parse Citigroup’s recent earnings release, looking for hints of internal conflict. “There’s shock,” said a Citigroup executive based in New York. “Even senior people were surprised.”

And although early reports suggested that Count Vikula had simply decided that Citigroup had come so far since he’d taken the gig five years ago that his work was done, and that while it was time to move onto the next stage of his life, he’d cherish the memories and the people he met at Citi, it now sounds like the split was a bit more acrimonious than that. Read more »

Sheila Bair, who served as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp during the crisis and its aftermath, levelled fresh attacks at Mr Geithner, the Obama administration, fellow financial regulators and bankers such as Vikram Pandit, Citi’s chief executive, in a new book that has laid bare policy disagreements of the past few years…Ms Bair criticises Mr Pandit for a lack of commercial banking experience and says she tried to force him out. Ms Bair was “pushing hard” for Jerry Grundhofer, former chief executive of US Bancorp, to replace Mr Pandit. Citi’s board “could have done so much better than Pandit,”  Ms Bair wrote…Taxpayers were unnecessarily put at risk and Citi, despite its weakness at the time, was allowed to avert nationalisation, a forced reorganisation or meaningful restrictions on its activities, Ms Bair alleges. “The public justifiably wanted retribution. Citi should have been led to the pillory,” Ms Bair writes. [FT via Heidi Moore]

Being in certain rooms at certain times seems to be a good predictor of selling a book. Bin Laden’s bedroom on the night of his death is an obvious one, and various days in the Oval Office have or may soon have their chroniclers, though the world still awaits the unabridged memoirs of the guy who cleaned out Jeff Gundlach’s office at TCW. But the Treasury Department conference room where regulators imposed TARP on eight big banks seems to have been especially fecund; by my count Hank Paulson has already published his account, somebody in the room seems to have contributed to this account, and now Sheila Bair has written a book that includes hers, which was excerpted in Fortune today.

This is weird because – well, one, because a bunch of guys (and Sheila Bair) in suits discussing the terms of a preferred stock purchase in a conference room is not necessarily the first place you’d look for thrilling literature, but also, two, because the accounts are all pretty similar. Here’s Bair’s take on the bankers’ reaction to the TARP terms:

I watched Vikram Pandit scribbling numbers on the back of an envelope. “This is cheap capital,” he announced. I wondered what kind of calculations he needed to make to figure that out. Treasury was asking for only a 5% dividend. For Citi, of course, that was cheap; no private investor was likely to invest in Pandit’s bank. Kovacevich complained, rightfully, that his bank didn’t need $25 billion in capital. I was astonished when Hank shot back that his regulator might have something to say about whether Wells’ capital was adequate if he didn’t take the money. Dimon, always the grownup in the room, said that he didn’t need the money but understood it was important for system stability. Blankfein and Mack echoed his sentiments.

Coincidentally, Dimon is always the grownup in these accounts, too; what is new here is really Bair’s take as the head of the FDIC:1 Read more »

There are so many good stories in Jesse Eisinger’s piece in ProPublica about how the Fed let banks return capital to shareholders that they somewhat obscure the central non-story:

In early November 2010, as the Federal Reserve began to weigh whether the nation’s biggest financial firms were healthy enough to return money to their shareholders, a top regulator bluntly warned: Don’t let them.

“We remain concerned over their ability to withstand stress in an uncertain economic environment,” wrote Sheila Bair, the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., in a previously unreported letter obtained by ProPublica. …

Four months later, the Federal Reserve rejected Bair’s appeal. In March 2011, the Federal Reserve green-lighted most of the top 19 financial institutions to deliver tens of billions of dollars to shareholders, including many of their own top executives. The 19 paid out $33 billion in the first nine months of 2011 in dividends and stock buy-backs.

That $33 billion is money that the banks don’t have to cushion themselves — and the broader financial system — should the euro crisis cause a new recession, tensions with Iran flare into war and disrupt the oil supply, or another crisis emerge.*

Here’s one way to think about bank capital:
(1) Banks should have a minimum capital of X**
(2) If banks have less capital than X, they have to raise more until they have X
(3) If banks have more capital than X, they can get rid of some capital until they have X

There are various ways to get rid of capital; my favorite is the money-burning party but other good ones include paying outlandish bonuses, building trophy headquarters, lavishing gifts on your potted plants to make up for your previous callous behavior, and of course the old standby of losing fuckloads of money on bad trades. All have their adherents. Two that are particularly popular are dividends and share buybacks. These are popular in part because, if you think of capital as money that people were nice enough to entrust to you, then when you don’t need it any more it does kind of make sense to give it back to the people who entrusted it to you, though again the other options all have their points too. Read more »

Sheila Bair, former head of the FDIC and cartoon-klutz-villain of Too Big to Fail, comes in for the occasional gentle ribbing on Wall Street, and her column in Fortune today is well set up for another round of gentle ribbing, which I will get to in just a minute, so you might think that that headline was intended to make fun of her, but actually, no, she makes a solid point:

MF Global took proprietary positions in European sovereign debt through what Wall Street calls “repo to maturity” transactions. It technically sold the European bonds to other firms, agreeing to repurchase them at a premium when they matured in 2012. MF hoped to make money by pocketing the difference in the rate it paid its trading partners and the higher rate paid on the bonds themselves. … Under the 300-page Rube Goldberg contraption of a regulation recently proposed by federal agencies to implement the Volcker Rule, “repo” transactions like MF Global’s are not generally treated as verboten proprietary trades. Thus, even if MF Global had been a bank, it arguably could have used this exception to gamble away, putting the FDIC at risk.

Now, if I had to guess, I’d say the better side of the argument is that the MF sovereign trades would in fact be streng verboten under the Volcker Rule. (Except, of course, as she points out, that MF is not an FDIC insured bank and so is not covered by the Volcker Rule.) I read the rule’s coverage of “any long, short, synthetic or other position” in a security to include the Corzine repo-to-maturity, which is at least a “synthetic position” in the underlying debt, and since the position seems to have been more “prop” than “flow” it would probably be prohibited. But I had to search around in the proposal for some time to come to that conclusion – it’s not apparent even from the mammoth Davis Polk flowchart that has replaced the actual rule text for my day-to-day Volcker Rule pondering efforts. And the meaning of “synthetic” may not be the same to everyone. So I’ll spot her the claim that a bank could “arguably” use a repo-to-maturity structure to prop trade to its little heart’s content. [Update: A lawyer I trust points to the Volcker Rule’s “repo exception” for trades arising out of repo agreements; he thinks that Bair is right that the MF Global trades would fall under the exception and not be covered by the rule. I suspect that the intent of the “repo exception” is to cover the people providing the repo funding (here MF’s counterparties), not the people with economic exposure to the position, so I’ll tentatively stick to my original claim, but in any case the murk is even murkier than I’d thought. By the way, if I’m wrong, then things are even worse than Sheila Bair thinks. Basically any prop trade is fine as long as you fund it via repo.] Read more »

Sheila Bair continues to be mad that she didn’t get to sit at the grown-ups’ table during the financial crisis, and she told Joe Nocera all about it in his much-talked-about “exit interview” this weekend. She-Bair is not afraid to bring the awkies regarding her relationship with Hank Paulson: “Except for a 10-second handshake, she never even spoke to Henry Paulson her first year or so in office.”

Wait, what? Sadly there are no more details about this 10-second handshake, but we imagine it got pretty creepy. Hank probably started crisp and confident, but by the five-second mark both hands were clammy and eventually Bair had to clear her throat noisily a couple of times and say “crushing my hand here Hank.”

Now, sure, the Bair didn’t like getting snubbed by Timmy and Hank just because her whole agency had to share two computers for most of her tenure. But she has no problem with elitism per se, and doesn’t think government money should be given to just any bunch of losers:
Read more »

  • 09 May 2011 at 3:07 PM

Who Wants To Be Chair(wo)man Of The FDIC?

If you’re looking for a new gig and think it might be the right fit, put in an application today, as Sheila Bair will be stepping down July 8, after her term expires.