Ebbers Finds Margin for Error at WorldCom - TheStreet

Call it the Bernie Ebbers margin call, version 2.0.

The telecom cowboy who rustled up some 60 phone and Internet companies into a Clinton, Miss., communications behemoth better known as

WorldCom

(WCOM)

has until Thursday to pay back a $183 million margin loan guaranteed by his employer. In a margin loan, a borrower buys securities using money lent by the broker.

According to a March 2001 WorldCom regulatory filing,

Bank of America

lent CEO Bernie Ebbers the money, taking as collateral 11.3 million of the executive's WorldCom shares. But with WorldCom shares having lost nearly half their value since the time of the filing, the collateral is now worth just $110 million -- leaving WorldCom on the hook for at least the difference.

A source familiar with the Ebbers' loan says the company will cover the full amount of the debt rather than dumping 11.3 million shares into an already hostile market to raise the funds. Considering the stock's 30% plunge this month amid marketwide accounting anxiety and fallout from big telecom disasters, that's probably not a bad idea -- except for the ever-present fairness question. WorldCom declined to comment.

"This has to be the largest CEO subsidization I have ever seen," says a New England-based buy-side analyst who is long WorldCom. "This is frustrating -- senior executives treating companies like they are their personal piggy banks.

Ebbers is a grown-up and should have to assume investment risk like the rest of us."

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Of course, WorldCom and Ebbers have played this game before. As you may recall, in the summer of 2000, WorldCom swooped in to cover Ebbers' debts to the tune of $150 million. In the wake of the Enron debacle, maneuvers that seem to favor top executives at the expense of shareholders are certain to attract scrutiny. And it's not as if Ebbers is on the soup line to begin with: The executive has a $1 million base salary and received a $10 million bonus for 2000.

With the stock at a five-year low Wednesday, closing at $9.95, WorldCom shareholders may be wondering where their bonus is.