Banking spins destruction myth: Hoocoodanode?
Just as every society has a creation myth, banking is now busily writing a destruction myth that seeks to explain and soothe in a world torn to its foundations.
The myth, as expounded by regulators, bankers and their various service providers, is that we were hit by a perfect storm, a 1,000-year flood so unpredictable that we can’t possibly be held accountable for it. An act of god, rather than the folly of man.
Or as the excellent financial blog Calculated Risk puts it: “Hoocoodanode?”
The implication of course is that now banks know these sorts of things can happen, banks will behave sensibly because it is their best interests to do so. It’s just that the data we put into the models only covered the boom years. Now that we are getting good data on a downturn, well, problem solved. No need for overly heavy-handed regulation, that will only stifle growth and recovery.
No need for intrusive compensation controls; this will simply drive risk takers out of banking and into less regulated areas, or will prompt a brain drain in which the best minds might go into, god forbid, industry.
There is a pronounced unwillingness to take responsibility and to recognize that many of the factors that went into creating and sustaining the bubble weren’t so much unknowable but more likely, for those in a position to do something about it at the time, either unprofitable, unpleasant or politically inconvenient to know.
Take, for example, Robert Rubin, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and current board member at Citigroup.
“Nobody was prepared for this,” Rubin told the Wall Street Journal. He has been paid $115 million, excluding stock options, since 1999 and was advising Citigroup when it decided to mimic its peers and take on more risk.
“… What came together was not only a cyclical undervaluing of risk (but also) a housing bubble, and triple-A ratings were misguided,” said Rubin, who believes he along with Alan Greenspan has taken an unwarranted knock to his reputation. “There was virtually nobody who saw that low-probability event as a possibility.”
There is simply no doubt that a number of people were raising red flags about risk, about the use of ratings, about issues around securitization, and most certainly about an emerging real estate bubble. But it proved impossible for those risks to get a proper hearing within a system that was throwing off so much life-changing money.
WHOSE MONEY, WHOSE RISK?
Rubin, when queried on his pay, answered that he could have make more elsewhere. True enough, no doubt.
But while everyone is free to take money that is on offer, that is different from saying that you have earned it, or that, in a system in which pensioners and taxpayers are the ultimate bag-holders, it is appropriate and should not be subject to regulation.
There is a similar argument on pay making the rounds: that since so many senior managers lost so much of their fortunes in the failure of companies such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, this demonstrates that there was not a misalignment of risks between employees, shareholders and the governments that ultimately must pick up the pieces when things go wrong.
It is very sad that so many people lost so much, but this is not even close to being an argument for continued light touch regulation. The issue is not so much that people in banking and finance have skin in the game, but that they are far from alone in having it, and that their ultimate cost of capital is in part a function of the fact that it is and has been understood that the state will step in if things
come to grief.
That argues, in my view, for stricter regulation of bank capital and of bank compensation so as to decrease the risks. That means tying compensation more closely to risks, including the risk that things that look good today go bad in three years’ time. The UBS scheme, under which bankers can “lose” money they “earn” based on various performance factors in subsequent years, is not a bad start.
Those who argue against more stringent regulation have one thing right: it is going to cost, and requiring banks to hold more capital will impose a ceiling on the speed at which the economy can easily grow. Of course, we are always regulating the last war out of existence.
One idea worth consideration is proposed by Paul Miller of FBR Capital Markets and would involve regulating assets and how they are funded, rather than just the institutions.
That would help to guard against the next shadow banking system and another highly levered and ultimately government-insured bout of speculation.
— At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. For previous columns by James Saft, click here. —