Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Freddie Mac CFO

So the long-time CFO of Freddie Mac apparently committed suicide; I feel for his family and friends.

That said, I don't really get why he would have been exceedingly stressed as he apparently was, or why he was feeling so much pressure that he felt he needed to end his life. Let's examine the situation:

The GSE's (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, etc.) are in conservatorship, which means they are being controlled by the government. Currently, the government is using them to artificially under-price risk in the housing market, in order to prolong the market downturn and magnify the problems it causes; you could argue about their motives, which may or may not be pure and/or idiotic, but that's what they are doing with the GSE's at the moment. As a result of this, the GSE's will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, and possibly trillions depending on how long they continue to operate in their current manner, but all of this is more or less known and expected, at least among the people with any consideration of the situation.

Despite this, the company is still operating more or less as usual, with respect to their business and compensation. In fact, they just completed their latest round of bonuses, amounting to nearly $300 million in total, so their employees should not be struggling, at least financially. Some executives have left, no doubt enriched by the 15+ years of profits during the pre-bubble and bubble years, and presumably the ones that stayed have done so either to continue being well-compensated for what is essentially easy work (since the government is mandating their lending criteria and rates, there's not much risk analysis work to be done, which would normally be the "hard part" of the business), or feel the need to "help" the government by staying on and doing their proxy business. Either way, it should be a fairly low-stress environment: you're doing easy work, helping the government, and getting very well compensated with guaranteed essentially government employment.

There are a lot of banking executives who have stressful jobs right now, and many of which are probably sweating a lot these days; after all, the banking industry is about a terminology change away from being nationalized entirely, to the detriment of the shareholders. The auto industry is also suffering, and some major players may be gone or changed in a few months. Many small businesses are already gone or on the brink, with no demand support to replace the contraction of consumption to keep private industry afloat. The GSE's, though, are expected to lose tons of taxpayer money, are not going away, and are not even controlling their own business practices: they essentially have no responsibility, no accountability, a mandate to operate inefficiently and wastefully, and continued normal employment with continued huge bonuses. If ever there was a cushy job, that should be it, right?

Sure, there's small annoyances to go along with it. For example, as the CFO you need to be sure everything you submit to the SEC is correct; that shouldn't be a problem, though, since you have more oversight anyway and people expect your books to look horrible (as they do). You have people picketing your house at the moment, but that's just a PR issue: you need to be a bit more pro-active about making sure people understand that Congress is implicitly approving the bonuses (though the oversight of the GSE's), not you just paying yourselves; as a bonus, you could likely expense the PR campaign to Freddie Mac. You may feel like you need to keep working hard to keep the economy afloat, but that's a self-imposed delusion: all the GSE's are doing is prolonging the downturn, and it would be better for the economy if you just went to work and played games all day. You might feel pressure from Congress and the executive branch, but it's a rudimentary business skill to not stress about things you don't control; remember, the government is running the GSE's, not you, so don't sweat it. And if all else fails, if you're feeling overwhelmed or caught up in some political in-fighting or something, just leave: you should have plenty in the bank by now to live comfortably for a long time, and some other political appointee can take the job. As even Hank Reardon eventually figured out, the best response to escalating absurdity, pressure, and government interference is to just walk away.

I don't want to minimize his death: obviously it's going to be devastating for his friends and family. However, it all seems suspect to me; out of all the people affected by the economy, his position does not seem like one which would impart enough stress to bring someone to that point. There may be more to this story, we shall see.


  1. Suicide due to chronic guilt from the incestuous relationship of the Feds/GSE's? As citizens we only know that which we have public access to, re: Fannie and Freddy, imagine what the CFO had access to. Cozy/illegal arrangements with pols? Worse?

  2. Still, where's the huge stress? Unless you were the one making the back-door deals (in which case you should have a "get out of jail free card" from the pols), what's the big deal? Heck, the CEO left like two years ago and hasn't been replaced: at the very least, you could blame backdoor dealings on him. Chronic guilt I could maybe buy, since the GSE's have and are currently literally destroying many people's lives prolonging the correction; but if you understood that you wouldn't have been working yourself ragged wasting taxpayer money at a furious pace, you'd be sitting around blocking loans and standing up to the government instead.

    Best I can think of is something damming in the last decade of financial statements before the GSE's were nationalized, but that's an unfounded stretch. It just seems strange to me.