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Dont get screwed by big mutual funds

I was reading my favorite weekly football column called TMQ and he did a blurb about mutual funds that hit the nail right on the head:

Suppose the General Manager of the Miami Dolphins Awarded Himself the Same Bonus as the General Manager of the New England Patriots: Last week, this story appeared buried inside the business pages of The Washington Post. Why wasn’t the story on Page 1? The Post reports that the blue-blooded five, Wall Street’s five top investment banking houses, awarded their management $39 billion in bonuses for 2007 — a period when those firms combined to earn investors about $11 billion in profits. Merrill Lynch lost $8 billion in 2007, Morgan Stanley $3 billion and Bear Stearns $230 million, yet the executives of these companies were showered with billions of dollars in bonuses. Otherwise, they would refuse to do any work! Which, apparently, would be in shareholders’ interest. Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley could have done better by their shareholders in 2007 by simply purchasing Treasury bills; a software program designed to make simple conservative investment decisions about market-following mutual funds would have performed better in 2007 than the top management of most investment banking houses. And the software program would not have paid itself billions of dollars in bonuses for screwing up! (TMQ owns no stock in any of the mentioned firms.)

It’s one thing when profitable firms shower money on their CEOs and other top brass; often the amounts are indecent, but as long as shareholders come out ahead, the executives have at least some justification for their windfalls. But in the modern milieu of corporate kleptocracy, even when the company does terribly and the CEO makes decisions that blow up in the firm’s face, the CEO awards himself hundreds of millions of dollars, anyway. Why is this not seen as white-collar crime?

Last week’s buried Post story included this priceless quote: “‘To many people, [the bonuses] will be shocking and questionable,’ said Jeanne Branthover, managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. ‘People in New York in the world of investment banking will understand it. It’s critical that pay is still there or you’re going to lose really good people.'” Beyond that executive headhunter firms such as Boyden have a self-interest in running up CEO pay — this can increase the search firms’ headhunting commissions — consider the reasoning: OMG, we can’t lose the really good people who cost our shareholders billions of dollars with dim-witted decisions! The notion that top corporate managers must be paid fantastic amounts because they possess incredible, astonishing expertise often is used to justify CEO pay, even when the managers who claim the incredible, astonishing expertise make foolish decisions. “We’ll put billions of dollars of money entrusted to our care into subprime gimmick mortgages backed by no documentation of income; my incredible, astonishing expertise tells me this is totally safe!”

Today the market fell sharply, while Wall Street executive bonuses rose in futures trading.
If corporate managers who screwed up received $5.85 an hour, the federal minimum wage, for the year in which they screwed up — that is, if their wallets were at risk when they perform poorly — then they might fairly argue for huge bonuses when they perform well. But there is no evidence that the people who made the big investment calls on Wall Street last year (except at Goldman Sachs, which avoided the subprime mess) are any better at what they do than people chosen at random off a Brooklyn street. You bet “people in New York in the world of investment banking” will understand huge executive bonuses paid in the same year as huge losses. What’s happening is basically a hustle, intended to enrich the executives while separating the investors from their cash. “People in New York in the world of investment banking” understand that, all right!

Pretty unbelievable… but then again I have been railing against actively managed mutual funds for quite a while.  They are making much more money on you than most people realize.

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