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The social cost of runaway bank pay

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If only the economy were bouncing back as fast as banking compensation.

Even as the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers draws near, bankers and traders are now grabbing a larger share of their institutions’ net revenue than they did during the boom years. The leading U.S. banks are on track so far this year to pay their employees $156 billion — more than in sunny 2006.

Politicians have focused mostly on whether the bonus structure can be changed to discourage bankers from making reckless bets with their shareholders money. But a bolder solution to excessive banking pay is necessary. It starts with a simple question: Are bankers paid too much? The answer is a resounding yes.

Everybody enjoys a bout of cathartic outrage over the pay of reality TV personalities and sports stars. At root, however, we must accept that these salaries are determined by the free market. The same is not true of investment banking.

Even those banks not currently financially dependent on the largesse of the federal government clearly benefit from an implicit guarantee. Governments of every political hue have clearly demonstrated that they are unwilling to let large institutions fail. This enables financial institutions to take risks that a toothpaste manufacturer could not. Bankers took full advantage of this subsidy before the crisis and are starting to do so again.

from Margaret Doyle:

COLUMN –Investors return to hedge funds: Margaret Doyle

Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own

By Margaret Doyle

LONDON, July 10 (Reuters) – If fear and greed are the motivating forces in financial markets, then greed appears to be in the lead again. Hedge funds had a torrid 2008 - losing money, barring withdrawals, displaying abysmal due diligence and even shutting down – despite the industry’s promise of “absolute return”. However, figures released by Eurekahedge show that investors are returning to the industry.
There are plenty of reasons to stay away. There is an old joke that a hedge fund is a remuneration scheme masquerading as an asset class. One of the few things that the industry has in common, across a multiplicity of investment strategies and styles, is its proclivity for hefty fees.
The industry has always defended “two and twenty”– 2 percent management fee and 20 percent of the annual return above a certain threshold – on the grounds that supe rsmart hedgies would outperform their rivals at dull long-only fund managers. Moreover, because the industry focused on “alpha” – the industry jargon for returns that are uncorrelated to market returns (“beta”) – the idea was that hedge funds would deliver “absolute” (rather than relative) returns. They might not beat, or even meet, market returns in the good years, but they would not lose it in the bad years.
2008 put paid to that theory. Moreover investors discovered that many of the previous excess returns were derived from excess leverage rather than super smarts. Worse, when investors tried to redeem their depleted capital, many funds invoked the small print to gate their funds.
The coup de grace was (or ought to have been) the revelation that several of those who invested with the fraudster, Bernie Madoff, were funds of hedge funds which had been charging a further layer of fees, supposedly to do due diligence.
In some ways, the investing environment is getting worse: regulators around the world are bearing down on the industry in a way they never did before and credit has dried up.
This tale of woe ought, at the very least, prompt those re-investing in hedge funds to demand better terms. Some distressed hedge funds have already refunded or reduced fees. In addition to smaller fees, investors ought to be clearer on when and on what terms they can get their money out.
Unfortunately, the signs are that healthy hedge funds are making few or no concessions on fees. For example, Man Group, Britain’s biggest listed hedge fund, reported that its gross margin on private investors remained “robust” in the year to the end of march, slipping slightly to 4.33 percent, and remains strong. Yet retail inflows exceeded outflows in the quarter to the end of June.
With investors’ memories this short, perhaps it should not surprise us that fund managers hold fast to their fees.

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