The "Subsidy": How a Handful of Merrill Lynch Bankers Helped Blow Up Their Own Firm
What do you do when no one -- not even your own traders -- wants to buy your supposedly safe mortgage-backed securities?
Two years before the financial crisis hit, Merrill Lynch confronted a serious problem. No one, not even the bank's own traders, wanted to buy the supposedly safe portions of the mortgage-backed securities Merrill was creating.
Bank executives came up with a fix that had short-term benefits and long-term consequences. They formed a new group within Merrill, which took on the bank's money-losing securities. But how to get the group to accept deals that were otherwise unprofitable? They paid them. The division creating the securities passed portions of their bonuses to the new group, according to two former Merrill executives with detailed knowledge of the arrangement.
The executives said this group, which earned millions in bonuses, played a crucial role in keeping the money machine moving long after it should have ground to a halt.
"It was uneconomic for the traders" -- that is, buyers at Merrill -- "to take these things," says one former Merrill executive with knowledge of how it worked.
Within Merrill Lynch, some traders called it a "million for a billion" -- meaning a million dollars in bonus money for every billion taken on in Merrill mortgage securities. Others referred to it as "the subsidy." One former executive called it bribery. The group was being compensated for how much it took, not whether it made money.
The group, created in 2006, accepted tens of billions of dollars of Merrill's Triple A-rated mortgage-backed assets, with disastrous results. The value of the securities fell to pennies on the dollar and helped to sink the iconic firm. Merrill was sold to Bank of America (BAC), which was in turn bailed out by taxpayers.
What became of the bankers who created this arrangement and the traders who took the now-toxic assets? They walked away with millions. Some still hold senior positions at prominent financial firms.
Washington is now grappling with new rules about how to limit Wall Street bonuses in order to better align bankers' behavior with the long-term health of their bank. Merrill's arrangement, known only to a small number of executives at the firm, shows just how damaging the misaligned incentives could be.
ProPublica has published a series of articles throughout the year about how Wall Street kept the money machine spinning. ProPublica's examination has shown that as banks faced diminishing demand for every part of the complex securities known as collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, Merrill and other firms found ways to circumvent the market's clear signals.
The mortgage securities business was supposed to have a firewall against this sort of conflict of interest.
Banks like Merrill bought pools of mortgages and bundled them into securities, eventually making them into CDOs. Merrill paid upfront for the mortgages, but this outlay was quickly repaid as the bank made the securities and sold them to investors. The bankers doing these deals had a saying: We're in the moving business, not the storage business.
Executives producing the securities were not allowed to buy much of their own product; their pay was calculated by the revenues they generated. For this reason, decisions to hold a Merrill-created security for the long term were made by independent traders who determined, in essence, that the Merrill product was as good or better than what was available in the market.
By creating more CDOs, banks prolonged the boom. Ultimately the global banking system was saddled with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of toxic assets, triggering the 2008 implosion and throwing millions of people out of work and sending the global economy into a tailspin from which it has not yet recovered.
Executives who oversaw Merrill's CDO buying group dispute aspects of this account. One executive involved acknowledges that fees were shared, but says it was not a "formalized arrangement" and was instead done on a "case-by-case basis." Calling the arrangement bribery "is ridiculous," he says.
The executives also say the new group didn't drive Merrill's CDO production. In fact, they say the group was part of a plan to reduce risk by consolidating the unwanted assets into one place. The traders simply provided a place to put them. "We were managing and booking risk that was already in the firm and couldn't be sold," says one person who worked in the group.
A month before the group was created, Merrill Lynch owned $7.2 billion of the seemingly safe investments, according to an internal risk management report. By the time the CDO losses started mounting in July 2007, that figure had skyrocketed to $32.2 billion, most of which was held by the new group.
The origins of Merrill's crisis came at the beginning of 2006, when the bank's biggest customer for the supposedly safe assets -- the giant insurer AIG (AIG) -- decided to stop buying the assets, known as "super-senior," after becoming worried that perhaps they weren't so safe after all.
The super-senior was the top portion of CDOs, meaning investors who owned it were the first to be compensated as homeowners paid their mortgages, and last in line to take losses should people become delinquent. By the fall of 2006, the housing market was dipping, and big insurance companies, pension funds and other institutional investors were turning away from any investments tied to mortgages.
Until that point, Merrill's own traders had been making money on purchases of super-senior debt. The traders were careful about their purchases. They would buy at prices they regarded as attractive and then make side bets -- what are known as hedges -- that would pay off if the value of the securities fell. This approach allowed the traders to make money for Merrill while minimizing the bank's risk.
It also was personally profitable. Annual bonuses for traders -- which can make up more than 75% of total compensation -- are largely based on how much money each individual makes for the firm.
By the middle of 2006, the Merrill traders who bought mortgage securities were often clashing with the powerful division, run by Harin De Silva and Ken Margolis, which created and sold the CDOs. At least three traders began to refuse to buy CDO pieces created by De Silva and Margolis' division, according to several former Merrill employees. (De Silva and Margolis didn't respond to requests for comment.)
Copyright 2011 Minyanville Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.