Why Wall Street won’t get shrunk

By Felix Salmon
November 22, 2010
8,000 words from John Cassidy on how financiers extract rents from the real economy rather than adding real value.

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This week’s New Yorker features 8,000 words from John Cassidy on how financiers extract rents from the real economy rather than adding real value. His article features not only The Epicurean Dealmaker, star of blog and Twitter, but also Paul Woolley, a former fund manager who now runs the Woolley Centre for the Study of Market Dysfunctionality, a man who knows how to give great quote:

“I realized we were acting rationally and optimally,” he said. “The clients were acting rationally and optimally. And the outcome was a complete Horlicks.” …

“Mispricing gives incorrect signals for resource allocation, and, at worst, causes stock market booms and busts,” Woolley wrote in a recent paper. “Rent capture causes the misallocation of labor and capital, transfers substantial wealth to bankers and financiers, and, at worst, induces systemic failure. Both impose social costs on their own, but in combination they create a perfect storm of wealth destruction.”

Cassidy is good at focusing on excessive pay in the industry:

Perhaps the most shocking thing about recent events was not how rapidly the big Wall Street firms got into trouble but how quickly they returned to profitability and lavished big rewards on themselves. Last year, Goldman Sachs paid more than sixteen billion dollars in compensation, and Morgan Stanley paid out more than fourteen billion dollars. Neither came up with any spectacular new investments or produced anything of tangible value, which leads to the question: When it comes to pay, is there something unique about the financial industry?

Thomas Philippon, an economist at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, thinks there is. After studying the large pay differential between financial-sector employees and people in other industries with similar levels of education and experience, he and a colleague, Ariell Reshef of the University of Virginia, concluded that some of it could be explained by growing demand for financial services from technology companies and baby boomers. But Philippon and Reshef determined that up to half of the pay premium was due to something much simpler: people in the financial sector are overpaid. “In most industries, when people are paid too much their firms go bankrupt, and they are no longer paid too much,” he told me. “The exception is when people are paid too much and their firms don’t go broke. That is the finance industry.”

Cassidy concludes with an ode to an earlier era:

In 1940, a former Wall Street trader named Fred Schwed, Jr., wrote a charming little book titled “Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?,” in which he noted that many members of the public believed that Wall Street was inhabited primarily by “crooks and scoundrels, and very clever ones at that; that they sell for millions what they know is worthless; in short, that they are villains.” It was an extreme view, but public antagonism toward bankers and other financiers kept them in check for forty years. Economic historians refer to a period of “financial repression,” during which regulators and policymakers, reflecting public suspicion of Wall Street, restrained the growth of the banking sector. They placed limits on interest rates, prohibited deposit-taking institutions from issuing securities, and, by preventing financial institutions from merging with one another, kept most of them relatively small. During this period, major financial crises were conspicuously absent, while capital investment, productivity, and wages grew at rates that lifted tens of millions of working Americans into the middle class.

Since the early nineteen-eighties, by contrast, financial blowups have proliferated and living standards have stagnated. Is this coincidence? For a long time, economists and policymakers have accepted the financial industry’s appraisal of its own worth, ignoring the market failures and other pathologies that plague it.

Cassidy’s view is a clear-eyed and straightforwardly reported version of, say, this, from Noam Chomsky:

The capitalist class in the ’50s was sort of part of a social contract. It was part of the tenor of the times… Changes have taken place since then… In the financial institutions, which by now dominate the economic system, the management level repeatedly acts in ways which will destroy their own institutions if it’ll increase their benefits, and benefits are not small. You know, you take a look at the revenue of, say, Goldman Sachs – a very high percentage of it just goes to payment of management and bonuses. There was a time traditionally – say, GM in the 1950s – it was trying to develop a consumer base that would be loyal and lasting and they were thinking in terms of an institution that would remain and grow and thrive in the society. By now, a lot of the investment firms – bankers, hedge funds – are perfectly happy to destroy what they’re in and come out with huge, tremendous benefits. That’s a new stage of capitalism.

Chomsky praises Yves Smith’s book as being “really good”, and says nice things about Simon Johnson, too; I’m sure if asked he’d be equally complimentary of, say, Joe Stiglitz or Jamie Galbraith. Elsewhere, he praises Dean Baker, and dates the beginning of the end to the dissolution of the Bretton Woods system:

In the mid 1970s that changed. Bretton Woods restrictions on finance were dismantled, finance was freed, speculation boomed, huge amounts of capital started going into speculation against currencies and other paper manipulations, and the entire economy became financialized. The power of the economy shifted to the financial institutions, away from manufacturing. And since then, the majority of the population has had a very tough time; in fact it may be a unique period in American history. There’s no other period where real wages — wages adjusted for inflation — have more or less stagnated for so long for a majority of the population and where living standards have stagnated or declined.

There’s clearly a large and appreciative audience in the blogosphere and in middlebrow magazines for this kind of analysis, which has even now become a feature-length documentary. But equally clearly it doesn’t even begin to play with the electorate as a whole. Look at what happened in the mid-term elections: insofar as Dodd-Frank was an issue at all, it was criticized for going too far — for being too much of an incursion by government in private industry — rather than for being too weak.

What has changed since the 1940s and 1950s, when popular mistrust of Wall Street was more than sufficient to constrain its ambitions and dangers? When even well-heeled investment bankers are on pretty much the same page as Noam Chomsky (or, for that matter, Eric Cantona), why is it that such sentiments still seem confined to the chattering classes? Maybe it’s just that this stuff is complicated, and that there’s little incentive for most people to put in the work needed to begin to understand it.

It’s certainly a lot more complicated now than it was in the 30s and 40s. As I noted in my review of Michael Perino’s book on Ferdinand Pecora, the Wall Street excesses of the 1920s were far simpler and more obviously egregious than the Wall Street excesses of the 2000s. Unless and until we see a parade of bankers in handcuffs being convicted of serious crimes, I suspect it’s going to be impossible to persuade the public at large that Wall Street is out of control and needs to be brought down to size. Even when former Wall Streeters like Woolley are clear of what needs to happen:

“The amount of rent capture has been huge,” Woolley said. “Investment banking, prime broking, mergers and acquisitions, hedge funds, private equity, commodity investment—the whole scale of activity is far too large.” I asked Woolley how big he thought the financial sector should be. “About a half or a third of its current size,” he replied.

That would be nice. But it’s not going to happen.

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