Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Is Goldman rebasing comp at a lower level?

Hugo Dixon
Jul 20, 2010 20:51 UTC

Is Goldman Sachs rebasing compensation at a lower level? For the second quarter in a row the investment bank’s compensation ratio has been only 43 percent. In the past, Goldman paid out around 50 percent of revenue to staff. For ordinary mortals, the numbers are still staggering: on an annualised basis, $545,000 is being set aside for each of the firm’s employees. But it does look like Goldman may finally be listening to its critics.

At the end of what was a blow-out first quarter, it was unclear how to interpret Goldman’s relative parsimony. The bumper results meant Goldman could still accrue huge sums for employees despite the lower-than-normal percentage rate. One senior executive said then that it would be reasonable to increase the accrual ratio only if trading in subsequent quarters was poor. Well, the second quarter was rotten. But the ratio didn’t budge.

Part of the explanation seems to be that Goldman has understood how past greed contributed to its recent public relations disaster. It would have been insensitive to jack up the accrual rate just days after paying a $550 million fine in connection with Abacus, a dodgy structured product it sold investors in the boom. Goldman’s failure to show restraint on pay this time last year helped sow the seeds of the backlash inflicted on the industry at the end of 2009 — leading to a UK bank bonus tax which is now costing the firm $600 million.

Sceptics will argue that Goldman will revert to type as soon as politicians take their eyes off the ball. There will certainly be a strong tendency to do so. But new regulations are being introduced around the world which will hardwire more restrained compensation practices: cash bonuses will be smaller and traders will have to repay bonuses when the profits behind them prove unsustainable. Beyond that, it will be down to shareholders to lock in lower pay — with the flipside of higher earnings and dividends.

What’s your bonus really worth?

Hugo Dixon
Jul 1, 2010 21:06 UTC

By Hugo Dixon and George Hay

What’s a bonus really worth? Under new European rules, bankers will see part of their bonuses retained, another chunk deferred and some may also be clawed back. The present value of a $1 million bonus could be cut to less than $800,000, according to Reuters Breakingviews calculations.

The starting point is how much the banker gets immediately in cash. The new rules specify that 40-60 percent of the bonus must be deferred for three to five years and at least half of the non-deferred portion must be non-cash. That means there’s a maximum of 30 percent upfront cash. But for bankers on big bonuses — and $1 million would presumably be in that category — at least 60 percent must be deferred. The cap on upfront cash, therefore, is 20 percent, or $200,000.

The next step is to see how much cash the banker will get in future. For our big swinging dick, the deferred bonus is $600,000, of which as much as half, $300,000, can be paid in cash. This sum, though, has to be discounted to reflect the risk of a clawback for bad performance and the delay in receiving it. Assume there’s a 5 percent risk of clawback each year and take a 4 percent discount rate for the time value of money. Over a four-year period, that shrinks the banker’s $300,000 to $213,000.

New UK coalition deserves 7 out of 10

Hugo Dixon
May 13, 2010 08:50 UTC

– Hugo Dixon is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

The new UK coalition deserves 7 out of 10. The pact between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, led by David Cameron as the new prime minister, seems determined to address the country’s most important problem — the deficit. This is vital given that the euro zone debt crisis could still prove contagious. It should also be positive for sterling.

Some good ideas are also emerging on tax and spending. But other plans for tax and banks look odd — and there are doubts about whether these bedfellows will be able to work together. After all, Britain has not had a coalition government since World War Two.

Gordon Brown: flawed saviour of financial system

Hugo Dixon
May 12, 2010 07:31 UTC

– Hugo Dixon is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Gordon Brown may go down in history as the flawed saviour of the global financial system. Brown had many faults including overseeing a public spending splurge in his decade as the nation’s finance minister. But he did make one big contribution. He galvanised other leaders to save the bank system during the post-Lehman <LEHMQ.PK> meltdown.

Brown, along with Tony Blair, was the main architect of New Labour — an initiative that dragged the former socialist party away from the fringes and towards the centre-left of the political spectrum. After New Labour took power in 1997, Brown devoted himself to the economy. His main achievement as finance minister was to give independence to the Bank of England. That depoliticised monetary policy.

Breaking up banks is no silver bullet

Hugo Dixon
May 4, 2010 07:32 UTC

– Hugo Dixon is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Breaking up the banks is no silver bullet. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic — including two of the party leaders fighting the UK election — want to separate so-called casino investment banks from utility lenders. But such simple rules would create arbitrage opportunities and rigidities without curbing excess risk-taking.

In the last of the UK’s election debates, the Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaders vied with one another to see who could be tougher on banks. As a soundbite, the notion that nasty, risky investment banking should be split from nice, safe retail banking may well be a winner. Gordon Brown, the Labour leader who has a more nuanced position, was left looking like a defender of big banks.

Why do markets pay attention to rating agencies?

Hugo Dixon
Apr 28, 2010 23:21 UTC

Why do markets still pay attention to what rating agencies have to say? Following their appalling record predicting the subprime mortgage crisis, it is astonishing and sad that investors still seem to quake when Standard & Poor’s junks Greece and downgrades Spain.

An arriving Martian would find it hard to understand why anybody gives any credence at all to S&P and its rivals Moody’s or Fitch. It’s not just that they were pumping up the U.S. subprime market — for example giving a triple-A rating to Abacus, Goldman Sachs’ now-notorious synthetic collateralised debt obligation — after smart investors saw trouble in the market.

They were late in spotting the wave of corporate debt defaults, including Enron’s, in the early part of the century. And they have been dilatory in calling attention to the current euro zone sovereign debt crisis. Even after S&P’s downgrade of Spain, Moody’s and Fitch, the other big agency, are still rating the country’s debt at triple-A. Ratings agencies are consistently behind the curve.

Fiat to spin off auto business: source

Hugo Dixon
Apr 20, 2010 16:01 UTC

LONDON/TURIN, Italy (Reuters) – Italian industrial group Fiat SpA <FIA.MI> will spin off its auto business under a new strategic plan, a source said on Tuesday, and shares surged almost 9 percent on the possibility of a demerger.

Analysts said a spin-off would give the Italian carmaker more flexibility to join the consolidation drive in a sector emerging from the worst downturn in decades.

FiatLuca Cordero di Montezemolo also said he would resign after six years as chairman of Europe’s fifth-biggest car maker. The announcement came a day ahead of Fiat’s strategy presentation, its first since teaming up with U.S. car maker Chrysler.

Goldman’s CDO investors: fools or victims?

Hugo Dixon
Apr 19, 2010 12:36 UTC

By Hugo Dixon and Richard Beales

Were the investors who lost $1 billion by buying a fearfully complex product sold by Goldman Sachs in the dying days of the credit boom fools or victims? That’s the key distinction on which the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud charges, which roiled the investment bank when they were unveiled on Friday, hinge.

Back in 2007, Goldman sold investors a $1 billion synthetic collateralised debt obligation (CDO). A CDO is a pool of securities, in this case 90 subprime residential mortgage backed securities. A synthetic CDO is based on a pool of derivatives that reference securities rather than the securities themselves.

The SEC’s key allegation is that Goldman marketed this synthetic CDO to investors without telling them that Paulson & Co, the hedge fund, had been involved in selecting the securities that were subject to the bet. What’s more, it didn’t tell investors — or ACA, an independent firm that officially selected the underlying securities — that Paulson was simultaneously placing bets with Goldman that these securities would fall in value.

Fears of UK hung parliament may be overstated

Hugo Dixon
Apr 19, 2010 07:58 UTC

– The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Fears of a huhugodixon-150x150ng parliament following the UK’s general election may be overstated. With Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third largest party, performing well in the first prime ministerial debate, sterling has received a mild knock. Investors do not like the uncertainty that goes with a hung parliament. While many European countries are used to coalition government, the UK is traditionally a two-party system – with government swinging between Labour and the Conservatives.

Added to this uncertainty is the fact that none of the three parties has come up with a credible plan for cutting the government’s deficit, which stands at 12 percent of GDP. One fear is that valuable months could be lost in horse-trading over forming the next government. Another is that a minority government could embark on a populist, but expensive, programme to prepare the ground for a second election later this year.

Europeans won’t be amused by alleged Goldman scam

Hugo Dixon
Apr 16, 2010 18:02 UTC

Europeans won’t be amused by the alleged Goldman Sachs scam. ABN Amro, and therefore ultimately Royal Bank of Scotland, ended up losing $841 million in the allegedly fraudulent collateralised debt obligation investment concocted by the investment bank. Meanwhile, IKB, the bust German bank, lost nearly $150 million.

These European banks were some of the biggest financial mugs in the last years of the credit bubble. But the allegations levelled by the Securities and Exchange Commission don’t concern the folly of the buyers and insurers of subprime mortgage investments. Goldman is accused of misleading investors. The UK and German states, which bailed the banks out, will be livid if the case is proved. Goldman denies the charges.

The UK government could be the biggest loser if the allegations turn out to be true. After all, it had to rescue RBS only two months after the Scottish bank paid Goldman $841 million to unwind a guarantee it inherited when it acquired part of ABN Amro, the Dutch bank, according to the SEC. Of course, the hole at RBS was much bigger than that. Still, there must be a risk that the issue could become a political football given that the UK is in the midst of a tight election campaign in which banker-bashing is a popular activity among all the main parties.