I’m a sports fan and a NFL fan, (T.E., not so much) and I enjoy reading Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column on ESPN.com. Easterbrook brings insight and research to the NFL that is not normally offered by the “jock-ocracy.” However, he also finds ways to incorporate science and politics into the mix as well.
This week, during his AFC preview (in which he correctly picks my beloved Colts to return to the Super Bowl,) he takes time to give an honest and infuriating account of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“Increasingly Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are looking like little more than devices to transfer money from the pockets of taxpayers to the pockets of Fannie and Freddie senior executives. Former Fannie Mae boss Franklin Raines paid himself about $50 million for years in which, we now know, the company lied about its earnings in order to inflate executive bonuses, while management was playing fast and loose with other people’s money. Beginning in 2007, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went off the cliff, their stocks plummeting to less than 20 percent of their previous values, and taxpayers were put on the hook as guarantors of the firms’ bad management decisions. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Mae-Mac debacle will cost taxpayers $100 billion or more. Yet Freddie Mac CEO Richard Syron was paid $14.5 million for 2007, including a $2.2 million “performance bonus.” Syron has taken home $38 million total from Freddie in the past five years. Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd got $14.2 million for 2007, plus a substantial prepaid life insurance policy and other perks including “financial counseling, an executive health program and dining services,” the Washington Post reported.”
As we talk about in “Crazyman’s Economics,” CEO’s with excessive salaries and stock options does not guarantee that they are motivated to do what is best for the corporation, the employees and the stockholders. Easterbrook points this out as well:
“Executives receiving very high pay justify their deals on two grounds: that they are risk-takers in high-pressure situations, and that they have valuable expertise. Now we know that no one at the top of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac took any personal risks — everything was federally guaranteed, and all mistakes billed to the taxpayer. Here, the New York Times reports that Syron was repeatedly warned in 2004 that the organization was taking on bad loans, and did nothing. Syron justified his inaction by complaining to the Times that he was under pressure from various Fannie constituents. That’s why he was paid so much, to take the heat! Yet he took no heat, rather, devoted himself to avoiding responsibility. If things go well, executives are lavished with money and praised as risk-takers. If things go poorly, executives are lavished with money and blame others.“And just what incredible expertise do Syron and Mudd possess? They made billion-dollar blunder after billion-dollar blunder; they failed to realize things as basic as buyers borrowing without documentation of income may not be able to repay loans. People chosen at random from the phone book could hardly have performed worse. Yet the federal bail-out legislation just signed by George W. Bush does not require them to give back any of their ill-gotten gains.“This is the core lesson of CEO overpay scandals: The corrupt or incompetent executive always keeps the money. He may be caught and embarrassed by bad press, but he keeps the money while someone else — shareholders, taxpayers, workers — is punished. Raines recently settled a federal legal complaint by agreeing to return about $3 million of his $50 million, but kept the rest; his employment contract was worded such that even if he was malfeasant, whatever he took from company coffers was his. Hilariously, federal prosecutors claimed victory because Raines “surrendered” to the government a large block of stock options — options now worthless, owing to the Fannie Mae decline Raines helped set in motion by lying about Fannie numbers. Until Congress enacts a law that allows money taken by corrupt or incompetent executives to be recovered, the lying will continue. Lying by CEOs is what society rewards!”
People falsely believe because such high-profile people as Enron’s Ken Lay serve prison time, that this is justice being served. But the truth is that Ken Lay was the exception, not the rule. Time and time again, we see CEO’s with golden parachutes leave a company in ruins and making a fortune off our trust. “Crazyman’s Economics” talks about how CEO’s, Congress, the MSM and Wall Street all have the same interests that don’t match those of the public. Easterbrook takes it one step farther:
“Why does Congress tolerate the swindle aspect of Fannie and Freddie? For the standard reason: Congress is on the take. Here, Lisa Lerer of Politico reports that in the past decade, Fannie and Freddie spent almost $200 million on campaign donations to Congress and on lobbying members of Congress, some of the lobbying money going to former members. This year, for instance, Fannie gave the legal max of $10,000 to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and to Republican House Whip Roy Blunt, neither of whom face meaningful re-election challenge. As for costly lobbying, the implied deal is: Don’t rock the boat while in office and someday you too will be a former member getting easy money to lobby former colleagues. During Senate debate on the Mae-Mac bailout, Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to permit a vote on an amendment that would have barred Fannie and Freddie from giving money to members of Congress. Reid did not merely oppose the measure, he refused to allow the Senate to vote on it — so that members of Congress could remain on the take, without having to go on record about the matter.“Now that taxpayers are covering Fannie and Freddie’s cooked books, the $200 million diverted to Congress in effect came from average Americans, forcibly removed from their pockets — and thanks to Senator Reid, more will be forcibly taken from your pocket and placed into the accounts of senators and representatives. This is what TMQ calls a Sliver Strategy. The Sliver Strategy is a means to disguise embezzlement. Congress looked the other way while Fannie and Freddie approved vast amounts of bad debt, in order to shave off a sliver for itself — in this case, the $200 million in lobbying and donations. Had Congress simply awarded itself $200 million, editorialists would have been outraged. Because the money was slipped in to a larger fiasco of much greater sums wasted, Congress got away with it.”
I am not in favor of socialism or against capitalism, but there is a better way to promote responsible and accountable corporate leadership.