Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fox Guarding the Henhouse? Bear Stearns Risk Manager Now at the Federal Reserve

Carol Baum has an opinion piece on the Bloomberg site about the New York Fed decision to hire Michael Alix, who was former chief risk officer at Bear Stearns at the time of its collapse. This story is interesting in itself, but it also provides an update on the status of a number of others associated with financial fiascoes, all of whom appear to have landed on their feet. Hopefully this is survivorship bias at work. I would like to believe for every scoundrel who lives happily ever after there are ten scoundrels toiling as clerks at Walmart whose stories won't make the paper.

Actually, as a former chief credit officer (for a much, much smaller organization than Bear Stearns, just $12B in income property loans), I have some sympathy for Mr. Alix. Although he had the chief risk officer job since just 2006, Alix was an 11 year employee at Bear and he had to be aware of the high wire the company was walking. But, if you were him, what would you do with that knowledge?

I think an apt analogy is the classic WWII movie scene in which there's a bunch of guys in a foxhole, and the enemy throws a hand grenade into the hole. Some credit officers in that situation see their role as saying something like, "Excuse me, but an object that looks like a hand grenade is now in our foxhole, and if it is a hand grenade and it explodes we could be injured or killed. But it might not be a hand grenade, and if it is it might not explode, and even if it does explode we might survive." Under this approach the credit officer has done his duty, tried to mitigate risk within the system, and he and his compatriots are probably dead.

Another approach is for the credit officer to yell "Grenade!" and, if no one reacts, throw himself on it. This would be the equivalent of telling your coworkers they're screwing up, and if they don't stop, calling up your regulator to shut the place down. Like throwing yourself on a grenade, this involves some personal risk and a great deal of courage. Here's a link to the fascinating story of a former coworker of mine who took that route at Indymac.

A third route is to shout "Grenade!" and, if no one reacts, exit the foxhole as quickly as possible. I think most people would say this is the course of action Mr. Alix should have taken, and before 2001 I think I would have agreed without thinking much about it. When I took my first big credit job (1997), I viewed myself as a circuit breaker. If the company I worked for overloaded, I would trip, and while I knew I was probably done with that company I thought I could go to another company who needed a circuit breaker. When the 2001 recession started and it made sense to turn deals down, it dawned on me that finding a replacement position during a recession might not be all that simple. The times when an assertive credit person is most likely to find his or her services no longer needed are the times they are least likely to find a new job. My response to this realization was to stockpile food in the basement and prepare for a long period of underemployment if necessary (thankfully, it wasn't), but another understandable approach would be for the credit person to step back and not make waves.

Compensation enters into this balancing act, but not in the obvious way. The standard view is that a credit person sells their soul to keep the big bucks rolling in, and I am sure that happens. However, the converse is also true; if you're not financially independent doing the right thing can be a hardship. This is especially true if others are dependent on you. Economists would like to believe you can structure compensation to incentivize people to do the right thing. I don't think that's possible with credit officers; in the end it's a character issue, not an economic one.

So, I have sympathy for Mr. Alix; he was in a difficult situation facing difficult issues. But, he should not have been hired by the Fed, as any economist knows. A basic tenet of principal-agent theory is that the threat of termination of the relationship is one of the ways to keep an agent from acting against the interests of the principal. If a credit person knows association with a major financial disaster will terminate his or her credit career, he or she is more likely to do the right thing. The hiring of Mr. Alix by a regulator to be a regulator is the most effective action I can think of to undermine that principle.