March 8, 2010

AIG: Equal Opportunity Thievery?

As the holder of a couple hundred shares of AIG stock (your condolences are accepted), I feel compelled to track the remnants of the former empire, rather like an archeologist who finds fragments of an ancient civilization buried in a forgotten forest. The latest twist involves a lawsuit by two former female staffers in AIG's Financial Products unit - the unit at the very heart of AIG's collapse. Susan Potter, 56, and Deonna Taylor, 62, both former VPs, have filed suit alleging that Joe Cassano, the now-fabled head of the operation, favored younger staffers and ran the rogue operation like a "boy's club." Now that's a shock!

Potter and Taylor said that managers misled them about salary caps, paid younger, male employees more for similar work and fired them in retaliation for filing discrimination charges. Cassano's lawyer is disappointed by the lawsuit, because his client treated staff "fairly." This will be one fascinating discovery.

Raging Bull Management
Cassano is not actually a defendent in the lawsuit, as his employment ended prior to the firing of both women. But his over-sized personality placed a stamp as clear as a neck tatoo on the entire operation.

To get a flavor for Cassano's modus operandi, check out the fascinating August 2009 profile by Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair. Here is an example [obscenity alert]:

"One day he got me on the phone and was pissed off about a trade that had lost money," says a Connecticut trader. "He said, 'When you lose money it's my fucking money. Say it.' I said, 'What?' 'Say "Joe, it's your fucking money!"' So I said, 'It's your fucking money, Joe.'"


Here's another example of micro-management, Cassano style:

According to traders, Cassano was one of those people whose insecurities manifested themselves in a need for obedience and total control. "One day he came in and saw that someone had left the weights on the Smith machine, in the gym," says a source in Connecticut. "He was literally walking around looking for people who looked buff, trying to find the guy who did it. He was screaming, 'Who left the fucking weight on the fucking Smith machine? Who left the fucking weight on the fucking Smith machine?'" If that rings a bell it may be because you read The Caine Mutiny and recall Captain Queeg scouring the ship to find out who had stolen the strawberries. Even by the standards of Wall Street villains, whose character flaws wind up being exaggerated to fit the crime, Cassano was a cartoon despot.

Joe Cassano famously stated on an investor conference call: "It is hard for us, without being flippant, to even see a scenario within any kind of realm of reason that would see us losing $1 on any of those transactions."

Ah, the irony of that line: AIG stock was trading around $55 when Cassano spoke. After all the losses and the $182 billion government bailout, the stock is worth...about a buck.

It appears that Cassano believed his own blustery rhetoric. He was no Bernie Madoff. He was Joe Cassano, True Believer:

"When he said that he could not envision losses, that we wouldn't lose a dime, I am positive that he believed that," says one of the traders. The problem with Joe Cassano wasn't that he knew he was wrong. It was that it was too important to him that he be right. More than anything, Joe Cassano wanted to be one of Wall Street's big shots. He wound up being its perfect customer.

Serving Justice?
All of which leads me back to Susan Potter and Deonna Taylor. Their complaints are likely true, yet I am having some difficulty summoning up sympathy for them. They were part of a pirate crew. They simply wanted an equal share of ill-gotten bounty. Yes, they were forced to walk the plank (terminated) in 2008 (Potter) and 2009 (Taylor). But the entire operation is scheduled for shut down later this year.

The atmosphere in the financial products operation must have been difficult for middle-aged managers, especially women. Taylor and Potter were probably paid less than their male counterparts. But when you look at the actual work of the unit, which brought the world-wide financial system to its knees, it's difficult to feel sorry for them. Had they turned whistle blowers, had they been fired for calling attention to the house of cards being built by Joe Cassano and his pirate crew, I might feel different about their plight.

We'll let Jim Walden, Cassano's attorney, have the last word: Financial Products "had many capable women at all levels, including in senior management, who thrived under Joe's supervision, including these plaintiffs. That they would now turn around and accuse Joe of tolerating, let alone encouraging, chauvinism is disappointing indeed. Joe Cassano hired, promoted and supported employees based upon a single criteria: merit."

We can probably reduce Cassano's philosophy to a single criteria, but it would not be "merit." "Greed" is more like it, unadulterated, F-bomb greed.

| 1 Comment

1 Comment

I think pirates is a good analogy except if you read a book by Marcus Rediker on 17-18th century piracy there were key differences

1) pirates had set rules about sharing rewards including pay for injury (an early compo system)
2) pirates elected their captains
3) pirates were often ex merchant seamen and were known to ask the captured crew about how the captain treated them before deciding his fate.
4) female pirate captains were known (especially famous Irish one in the 16th century)
5) pirates did not bring capitalism to its knees and then get government bail-outs (some were pardoned for 'going straight'). They were crushed in part to protect to emerging sugar/slave trade to the Caribbean (which in turn helped to fuel to industrial revolution).
6) pirates didnt blame everyone else when things went wrong (got caught and tried) and a number freely admitted if not boasted of their sins
7) pirates who got caught were often hung, especially during the major sweep against them in 1699-1720

Regards

Professor Michael Quinlan
School of Organisation and Management
University of New South Wales

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This page contains a single entry by Jon Coppelman published on March 8, 2010 1:01 PM.

The Annals of Law: The Caper of the Counselor's Coat was the previous entry in this blog.

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