Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Amakudari Revisited

Thomas Nast, Mr. Moneybags
“If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.”
“In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”
“True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.”
“Whatever my connections may be,” said Elizabeth, “if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you.”

— Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Newly listed advisory boutique Moelis & Company set the cat among the pigeons yesterday by announcing it has hired former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to be a director of the company and a Vice Chairman in their advisory group. This news seems to have pleased approximately everybody, from Moelis & Co., which is delighted with their prominent and newsworthy new hire; Mr. Cantor himself, who can anticipate being approximately $3.4 million richer over the next 18 months or so; and up to and including critics of the Washington-to-Wall Street revolving door, who are now in possession of rich fodder for tut-tutting opinion pieces bemoaning the sorry state into which our crony capitalist democracy has sunk. In Washington, D.C. and on Wall Street as well, it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

While the generous cash and restricted stock which Mr. Cantor is receiving from his new employer seems to have been viewed by most as sufficient and self-evident explanation of why he chose to accept Moelis’s offer, there does seem to be some confusion among certain commentators as to why Moelis wanted him. Dennis Kelleher, former Senate staffer and head of non-profit public interest lobbying group Better Markets—about which nobody was talking last week and about which everybody (or at least a larger number of somebodies) is talking this week, thanks to said announcement—claims loudly that Moelis hired Cantor because 1) they wanted the publicity, 2) they want his political insight and connections to lobby for legislation and regulation favorable to their business, and 3) they want to matter more in Washington. While Matt Levine effectively deflates the more grandiose and overreaching of Mr. Kelleher’s claims—and particularly punctures the notion that a focused advisory boutique like Moelis & Co., which faces few of the proprietary trading or balance sheet capital issues its larger integrated universal bank competitors do, has common cause with said competitors in shaping the larger regulatory agenda—I cannot disagree with the broad outline of Mr. Kelleher’s remarks.

The important nuance which I would add, however, is that Moelis’s hire of Mr. Cantor must be examined in light of their mission as a client-focused advisory firm. Mr. Kelleher’s claims gain more weight if one properly understands that, notwithstanding the official job titles which Moelis & Co. have granted the deposed ex-Congressman, his real role at the company should be understood as Pet Famous Politician.1

As such, Mr. Cantor has several interrelated roles and duties:
  • Publicity magnet – To raise, by his very presence, the profile and awareness of Moelis & Company in Washington, D.C., the news media, and the general population at large. Ken Moelis, while broadly known on Wall Street and among the business community, does not carry the star wattage to pull this off by himself. This is known as general brand advertising.
  • Fame whore magnet – Notwithstanding all their wealth, power, and influence in the economy—and their often low opinion of and fraught relationship with government—even the most illustrious businessperson tends to get a flutter of excitement when they meet a well-known politician. This can probably be laid to the fact that even the meanest politician tends to have fame and celebrity status well in excess of the average business leader, and almost everybody is curious to meet a celebrity. It also probably has to do with the fact that politicians tend to have power, and business people tend to be the kind of people who are attracted to power.
  • Door opener – As Messrs. Kelleher and Levine both agree, Mr. Cantor is neither trained in nor necessarily exhibits any of the transaction processing skills of an advisory investment banker. Nevertheless, Mr. Cantor is likely to have some contacts in his Rolodex whom his new colleagues would love to get in front of to pitch their wares, and I am sure they will hand him a prioritized call list as soon as he walks in the door. Even if Mr. Cantor does not personally know all of his employer’s prospective clients, senior calling officers will be eager to use him as bait (see Fame whore magnet, supra and Subject matter expert, infra) to get that key meeting with a high priority target CEO or Board of Directors which they’ve been trying to break into for ages. The kind of large, high profile clients which a Moelis & Co. wants to work with tend to have overwhelming numbers of investment bankers constantly importuning them for business and usually limit their work to a small handful of trusted relationships. Hence they tend to keep unknown bankers at a firm arms length. The flimsiest excuse to get a client to open the door and take a meeting—“Hey, come meet the former House Majority Leader of Congress!”—is welcome. Besides, correctly or not, most senior bankers believe once they get in front of a client they have the skill to win the assignment themselves; all it takes is access. Mr. Cantor will only have to smile, relate a few political war stories, and then shut up.
  • Subject matter expert – Our ex-Congressman does have one obvious skill set which is highly valuable in corporate advisory work and which is cultivated assiduously by senior bankers eager to build a name and a business for themselves: he is very well connected and extremely knowledgable in an important segment of the economy and the dealmaking environment. The fact that his subject matter is relevant in multiple dimensions to almost every business which Moelis & Co. would like to serve is just icing on the cake. Chief Executives and Board directors will be exceedingly interested in the insights Mr. Cantor can share about who knows what, who hates whom, and how things get done inside the Beltway, because in almost every instance that will have a direct effect on their daily business and/or the particular capital raising, M&A, or corporate finance transaction at hand. This is an area where Mr. Cantor will be able to add real content to the discussion and share valuable information and intelligence all on his own, and it won’t involve him smiling and shaking hands like a bobble doll.
  • Deal originator – Of course, under the right circumstances, there is nothing to prevent Mr. Cantor from using the assets and attractants listed above to source his very own transactions, instead of just contributing to those of his colleagues. This would certainly entitle him, in my book, to a shot at much larger incentive compensation than Moelis & Co. have guaranteed him for joining the firm. There is also circumstantial evidence that Mr. Cantor may indeed have key senior investment banker skills of a high order. After all, a very large component of his job as Congressman and House Majority Leader involved selling, creative dealmaking, and high stakes, high pressure negotiation. These are the critical skills a senior investment banker must bring to bear to win assignments and close transactions, not filling in spreadsheets or wordsmithing press releases. That’s what the little people do. If Mr. Cantor is looking for inspiration along these lines, he could do worse than consult the case of Rahm Emanuel, who turned a senior political aide position in the Clinton administration into a two-and-a-half year stint at Wasserstein Perella that earned him over $18 million.
Perhaps Mr. Cantor is not quite so unworthy after all.

* * *

Of course, in your wonted role as Clever and Discriminating Readers, you delightful people will already have noted that nowhere in my speculative litany of tasks for which Moelis & Company may have hired our peripatetic politician is the duty of lobbyist. It is possible, of course, that his employer does anticipate fielding Mr. Cantor back inside the Beltway when his current restrictions expire. But, if so, I suspect any such lobbying will be indirect and done on behalf of clients rather than for Moelis & Co. itself. In fact, I venture to guess Mr. Cantor will most likely offer access and intelligence on whom to contact within government to his employers and clients, rather than leading any direct or indirect lobbying charge himself. After all, if he pulls off his other roles appropriately, he will be both too busy and making too much money for the firm to spend much time hanging out with politicians and regulators.

I suppose this is the best explanation of both Mr. Cantor’s appeal to an investment bank like Moelis and the amount of money a former Congressman like him can make via amakudari. Like it or not, government is important to business, and the people who know how it works, how to make it work, and whom to work to make it work carry extremely valuable intelligence, even if they do not meddle directly in the process. In fact, I suspect Moelis & Co. spends less on senior lobbyists than they hope and intend to pay Mr. Cantor.

After all, investment banks are in the business of making money. Not changing regulations.

Related reading:
Moelis & Company, Form 8-K dated September 2, 2014
Annie Lowrey, What Eric Cantor Is Really Going to Do on Wall Street (New York, September 2, 2014)
Matt Levine, What Can a House Majority Leader Do for a Bank? (BloombergView, September 2, 2014)
Timothy P. Carney, Cantor’s not lobbying, but his big payday should upset conservatives (Washington Examiner, September 2, 2014)
Amakudari (January 20, 2007)

1 It is important to note I claim no special insight into Moelis & Company’s actual rationale for hiring Mr. Cantor or its future plans for him. These remarks constitute rank speculation, based solely on public information and my over 20 years of experience in the Wall Street septic tank, not privileged insider information. That being said, I have seen similar scenarios before, and they almost all fit the pattern which I lay out for you charming people above. My rank speculation, in this instance, is probably a pretty good guess.

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