I was on the Andrew Hall/Phibro beat for a while and must confess I dropped it in the finish-the-book crunch. I neglected to follow up on and important aspect of the story that is still germane.
Readers may recall the brouhaha: Hall, a high stakes oil trader, had received nearly $100 million in 2008 at Citigroup (Phibro, his unit, was a subsidiary) and had the potential to earn that much this year. His pay deal looked unseemly even by Wall Street standards. As we noted in our first post on this matter (where we took issue with the Wall Street Journal’s posture):
No where is the asymmetry of this arrangement mentioned: that Hall and his team get the upside (30%, more than a hedge fund success fee, more than even LTCM in its glory days, which got a 25% upside fee), but the taxpayer gets stuck with the losses. Hall and his bunch have the richest option deal going. Nor does it bother to point out that Hall would find it hard to get access to as much capital as Citi provides him on such rich terms from the outside. Citi not only provides him with more equity than he is likely to be able to raise (certainly for a 30% upside fee) and his cost of funding is sure to be considerably lower than if he were to operate on his own.
The indefensible aspect in our new bailout era was that taxpayers should be backstopping or funding activities only if they are essential parts of the financial infrastructure. Principal trading is not on the list.
What was intriguing was as things rolled forward was that is was increasingly obvious that Hall would not be able to replicate the conditions he had at Citi anywhere else. After some initial resistance to the pay czar pressure, Hall started negotiating with Citi. Huh? If he was such a hot item, he should have been able to decamp and raise money, or find a happy home in another bank. Contrary to conventional wisdom, not all banks in the world are walking wounded. The Japanese, who are keenly interested in oil thanks to their need to import a ton, would be candidates. Some Eurobanks are not on the government drip feed (Sandater, Deutschebank, although their regulators could have curbed a deal). And there was always the option of a joint deal, say a bank plus a deep pockets investor, private equity firm, or sovereign wealth fund (they took a hit, but should be showing some improvement as equity markets rebound).
But what did we see? Hall wound up at….Occidental Petroleum. Maybe the company has changed, but I had some very limited dealings with them in the 1980s (they were pedaling an utter garbage barge of an oil shale deal, and were so eager to foist it on the chump Japanese that I got to meet all the top brass. To put it politely, they were not nice people, and I see that some that I met are, ahem, still in positions of considerable influence. My dim views then were confirmed by commodity traders).
Whoa. Phibro earned an average of $351 million a year for the last 5 years. Oxy paid $250 million, the current value of Phibro’s trading positions. There was NO premium, zero, zip, nada, for the earning potential of the business. Zero. Oxy bought the business for its liquidation value.
Hall’s travails had been in the paper for months. The usual routine if you want to get offers for a division is to let the world know it is for sale (the usual code is “exploring strategic options” but more blatant forms like front page business section stories work fine too). Hall most certainly would have put out feelers; presumably Citi did as well. This was the best deal they could scrounge up.
So what does that say?
A LOT of Hall’s performance was due to cheap funding from Citi, and probably massive leverage too, conditions he could not replicate anywhere else. A risky, highly geared operation should pay an interest rate appropriate to the hazards it is taking, not the borrowing costs of its parent (this basic premise is widespread in financial firms, embodied in approaches like RAROC (Risk Adjusted Return on Capital), the Basel I and II rules, and Economic Value Added models.
Hall could not have been a balance sheet hero unless his pay deal did not adjust for the riskiness of his borrowings. Since Phibro acquired Salomon Brothers (which then came out on top in a palace coup) which was later acquired by Travelers and then merged into Citi, it is possible that Hall’s arrangement was grandfathered and the internal accounting made to correspond to it rather than the conventional metrics in use today.
It is impossible to know for certain, but the deal Citi cut with Oxy struck strongly suggests that Phibro’s preformance was in large measure the result of amped up leverage that no one outside Citi was able or willing to provide. Future financial reports from Oxy may shed more light.