JONATHAN CHAIT NOVEMBER 17, 2010
[Guest post by James Downie]
Jon Chait and Jon Cohn's skeptical posts about Roger Altman highlight his public statements, and the possible pick becomes even sketchier when considering his maneuvering behind the scenes. From Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail:
The independent board members [of Morgan Stanley], led by the lead director, C. Robert Kidder, decided they needed to hire an independent adviser and, after a short conversation, chose Roger Altman, the former deputy Treasury secretary and founder of the boutique bank Evercore Partners (and Dick Fuld’s former carpool-mate). He would advise the board on whatever transactions they would be presented with and provide a modicum of cover; in the event that whatever happened over the weekend led to legal battles, at least they would look like they were trying to be responsible. […]
The tension inside Morgan Stanley’s board meeting was becoming untenable. Roger Altman, the banker from Evercore who had been hired just twenty-four hours earlier to advise them, was telling them that they needed to think hard about selling the entire firm. He had painted a doomsday scenario, and it wasn’t sitting well with several directors in the room, who had become convinced that Altman was trying to get them to do a deal simply so that he could collect a big fee. During a break, Roy Bostock spoke with C. Robert Kidder, the firm’s lead director: “We ought to fire that guy right now. Get him out of here. He is not helping.” Others were concerned that given his close ties to the government—he was the former deputy Treasury secretary and was still considered very well connected—that he might leak information about the firm’s health back to them. That, they thought, would explain why Geithner was putting so much pressure on Mack to do a deal. Though they did not know it, Altman had sent an e-mail to Geithner the night before telling him that he had gotten the assignment to work for Morgan, but he had not disclosed any of the details of the meeting.
Whether it was paranoia or just a lack of sleep, the discussion was becoming heated. Mack, who hadn’t been consulted when Altman was hired, was even more upset about his being there than some of the board members. “I don’t trust him,” Mack announced after he kicked Altman out of the board meeting temporarily. He said he thought they should be using Morgan Stanley’s own bankers to advise them if they really were going to sell the firm. He also told them he was worried about revealing the details of Morgan Stanley’s negotiations with Mitsubishi in front of Altman, reminding the directors that Evercore had a partnership with Mizuho Financial Group of Japan, one of Mitsubishi’s rivals.
“I don’t know what this guy is up to,” he said.
In addition, last June, Evercore was in the news for receiving what the US Trustee overseeing the GM bankruptcy termed “staggering” and “excessive” fees for their consulting work. Altman left out that detail a month later, when he wrote a New York Times op-ed in part praising the president's "courageous decision to put General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcy." Altman was right to be worried about Morgan Stanley's viability, but if the White House's goal is to appoint someone to repair relations with Wall Street, Altman might give them the worst of both worlds: an adviser the public associates with Wall Street whom many on Wall Street don't trust.