Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Why it pays to be combine Wall Street with politics

Rajan's book on "Fault Lines", which I have just been reading, reminded me of Robert Rubin, former US Secretary of Treasury, earlier the CEO of Goldman Sachs and later the Chairman of Citibank. In December 2008, the Wall Street Jounal had a tasty story of how Robert Rubin helped run Citibank into the ground and later be bailed out by the US taxpayer while in the process being paid US$115 million for "his services". Just read the quotes from the article below, which I leave without any comment:

"The virtue of this arrangement for Mr. Rubin has become manifest during the current panic. While Mr. Rubin has acknowledged that he promoted the disastrous idea of exposing the bank to greater risk to boost profitability, his "no line responsibilities" job description now allows him to blame the line managers for the consequences of his ideas.

Citigroup shareholders have suffered losses of more than 70% since Mr. Rubin joined the firm. To this day, he appears unable to say what exactly he did for the $115 million that he took out of Citi. "I think I've been a very constructive part of the Citigroup environment," he recently told the Journal, in defense of his tenure. Try selling that line at your next annual performance review, especially when asking for an eight-figure salary.

What is clear is that Mr. Rubin encouraged changes that led Citi to the brink of collapse. Which brings us to his best (only?) argument to shareholders. Mr. Rubin was reportedly critical to securing the latest federal bailout of Citi -- $20 billion in preferred shares plus taxpayers taking on most of the risk in a $306 billion portfolio of dodgy assets. This is on top of the $25 billion in Citi preferred shares that taxpayers bought in October. Giving Mr. Rubin the benefit of the doubt that he is the fixer who delivered the federal cash, this could make his paycheck appear more reasonable to many shareholders."

Or perhaps Mr. Rubin will be a victim of his own Beltway success. The U.S. government, with a 7.8% stake, is now a major Citi shareholder. The activist investors known as American taxpayers might just decide that they have no more dollars to spend on "constructive parts of the environment" with "no line responsibilities."

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