WSJ Scoop on Citi’s $100 Million Man

The Journal has a nice scoop that Citigroup is begging the government to let it pay big bonuses to “key employees,” particularly those in its energy-trading group.

How big might those bonuses be? Well, the head of the energy group, Andrew Hall, last year raked in a cool $274,000… a day.

That’s right. A hundred million dollars just last year, as Citigroup was going down the sewer, forcing taxpayers to give it tens of billions of dollars and guarantee hundreds of billions of its debt. That’s also a scoop, as far as I can tell. That’s right, taxpayers. As you were bailing this company out to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, it was paying one guy $100 million.

Now, Hall’s energy-trading group, called Phibro, did make a lot of money last year, and he’s apparently good—they’ve made money fifteen years in a row, as Jessica Pressler of New York points out.

But the logic is very pre-September. Think back to the Merrill Lynch bonus scandal from a few months ago. A (small) minority argued that even though the company lost $28 billion, it was fine to pay out $3.6 billion in bonuses because some parts of the company actually made money. Why should they be on the hook for their colleagues’ failures?

The point is that without government intervention these folks would have gotten no money at all. There companies would have been toast. And if a unit is part of a company that’s scraping by, it should have to bail water, too.

Problem is, as they say in the biz, your assets can walk out the door at anytime. It’s not as much fun to make a measly couple of million a year when you’re used to making that in a week. Hall can leave tomorrow, try to raise some money, and start his own operation. More power to him.

It’s why government pay limits just won’t work. If we as a society really believe this kind of thing is intolerable, the blunt forces of regulation and taxation will be the only ways to moderate it.

Which brings me to something the Journal story doesn’t mention. That Phibro and Hall have had a long, profitable run in the casino is fortunate, but it won’t continue forever. Nobody’s that good. We’ve seen a long list of once-untouchable traders and investors laid low in recent years. A “black swan” could devastate these guy’s bets.

When the losses come, Hall won’t be on the hook for them. Citigroup and the investors will be.

I’d also point out that it’s probably not a good idea to have a hedge fund sitting on top a couple of trillion dollars in consumer deposits. How much of Phibro’s gambling is done with deposits? This Journal story from last year says “all of it.”

Hall is not going to be the most sympathetic symbol for the pay-us-millions-despite-propping-us-up-with-billions crowd, either. Pressler points out that the dude has his own 1,000 year-old castle. Upkeep’s gotta be steep on that.

Hall might want to invest in a moat, a drawbridge, some archers, and boiling buckets of oil to keep the taxpaying hordes at bay if this story catches on.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.