Worry about bank capital, not bonuses
The effort to rein in banking bonuses, outrageous as they may be, is akin to banning glue sniffing because you are worried about the effects of intoxication.
There are, as the kids in the alley behind the high school can tell you, other ways of getting high.
Train your regulatory fire instead on requiring more and better bank capital and you will arguably do a great deal to control excessive compensation as well as doing much more to protect taxpayers and the economy.
Financial leaders from the Group of 20 rich nations agreed the skeletal outlines of a plan to reform banking last weekend in London. Included was the idea of claw backs on bonuses if earnings evaporate, forcing more pay to be deferred for longer, and more disclosure of top pay.
This may have some effect; bankers will have to wait a while for their money and some risky bets may not be made. But the out-sized rewards are the result of people within finance having an informational advantage over their shareholders and regulators and the ability to play with huge amounts of other people’s capital. Combine this with an implied government guarantee for the too-big-to-fail and you end up with a crisis every ten years or so. Just making bankers wait longer for their money does nothing to affect the competition for deals and assets to leverage.
Besides the folks who brought you the CDO squared will be well able to find workarounds to ensure that money leaks out in one way or another.
More promising by far are proposals to force banks to increase the amount and type of capital they hold. Central bankers and regulators from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision are calling for a host of measures to bolster capital, including saying that common shares and retained earnings must be the mainstay of capital, introducing a leverage ratio and minimum standards for funding liquidity. All three will make banking and the economy more stable. All three will also, in so far as they reduce the amount of borrowed money available for investment, tend to push asset prices lower.
LEVERAGE IN, LEVERAGE OUT
Kansas City Federal Reserve President Thomas Hoenig points out that the largest 20 U.S. banks have equity capital equal to only 3.5 percent of their assets, as against an average of 6 percent for their middle sized competitors.
“They have an implied guarantee, which affords them an enormous advantage in terms of their use of leverage and their ability to accumulate assets to unprecedented levels,” Hoenig said in a speech to bankers made in August but released last week.
The large U.S. banks, it is worth mentioning, in turn face competition from their big trans-Atlantic peers, many of whom have leverage far in excess of theirs.
Forcing large banks around the world to raise enough capital, or dump enough assets, to put them on a level with their smaller peers would do a great deal to put an end to the rolling bubbles and bailouts.
The Basel committee also said it would consider the need for a capital surcharge to “mitigate the risk of systemic banks.” If by this they mean a tax on size above a certain level, this would be a fantastic start to counterbalancing the unfair advantage enjoyed by the too-big-to-fail, not to mention the threat they pose to the public purse. It would make good sense to impose a tax on size and to phase it in over several years, so that banks would have both the time and the incentive to shed assets without resorting to a fire sale.
Control leverage and size and you will do more to control destructive risk taking than any programme can which simply makes bankers wait a few years until they can get their payouts.
If you are really worried about unfair compensation in banking you have to define who is being badly treated by it. Moderating the effect of a taxpayer subsidy by limiting size and controlling risk taking is a start, but there are still shareholders and consumers of financial services to be protected. Both of these groups suffer because they don’t really understand the complex products being produced and sold by the industry. This allows consumers to be overcharged or oversold and shareholders to be chiseled out of part of their portion of the gains generated.
It is strange to say, but bank customers and owners may want to make common cause over the issue of simplicity in financial services. Simple banks with simple products might in the long run generate better outcomes for their owners and clients, just as simple index funds now do for investors. Will regulators be able to accomplish all of this? Probably not, but they would do well to concentrate their limited resources and creativity on the foundations of banking rather than the salaries on the top floor.
–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. —