Wall Street pay is the Great Distraction of the Great Recession

October 22, 2009

If I made of list of factors contributing to the recession and financial crisis, Wall Street pay would come in around 6th, after 1) easy monetary policy; 2) TBTF; 3) US housing policy; 4) global savings glut/China labor shock; 5) Wall Street group think.  Yet pay is where so much energy is being directed at this issue thanks to its populist appeal. America hates TARP so Washington needs to make amends by hammering execs at TARP recipients.

Now two other takes. First, Marginal Revolution:

There is no way this will work as advertised.  If the administration actually follows through, most of these executives will quit and get higher paying jobs elsewhere.  Executives not directly affected by the pay cuts will also quit when they see their prospects for future salary gains have been cut.  Chaos will be created at these firms as top people leave in droves.  Will the administration then order people back to work?

Here is Naked Capitalism:

The point is that the collection of these scalps will do nothing to comp levels ex these firms. The companies that also enjoy implicit government guarantees are free to do the “heads I win, tails you lose” game of privatized gains and socialized losses. And Ken Lewis is the poster child of why these measures are completely meaningless. He sacrificed his 2009 pay, but will still collect $125 million when he departs Bank of America.

If the government is going to backstop the industry (and this isn’t an “if” anymore), it needs to limit those firm’s activities to what is socially valuable and regulate them heavily to contain risk taking. As we have said, reining in executive pay (and note there is no will to do that anyhow) is not an effective approach. Those employees who don’t like that are free to decamp and raise money in ways that do not involve the regulated firms in any way, shape, or form, save perhaps counterparty exposures on very safe, highly liquid instruments.

One comment

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[...] reform is hard and hanging a few scalps on the wall is easy and makes us feel good. But, really, as James Pethokoukis points out, our wrath here is misdirected: If I made of list of factors contributing to the [...]

[...] James Pethokoukis If I made of list of factors contributing to the recession and financial crisis, Wall Street pay would come in around 6th, after 1) easy monetary policy; 2) TBTF; 3) US housing policy; 4) global savings glut/China labor shock; 5) Wall Street group think.  Yet pay is where so much energy is being directed at this issue thanks to its populist appeal. America hates TARP so Washington needs to make amends by hammering execs at TARP recipients. [...]

I agree with much, but take issue with the Naked Capitalism blurb. The solution is not to’limit those firm’s activities to what is socially valuable and regulate them heavily to contain risk taking.’ The solution is to eliminate the government policy of too big to fail.

Once that message is sent loud and clear, then the behavior of market participants will adjust accordingly and ‘excessive’ or ‘irresponsible’ risk taking will decline by virtue of the natural dynamics of capitalist discipline. Because the prospect of real failure is powerful incentive for any institution to be more judicious in the risks that it takes — as opposed to today’s environment where ‘failure’ means the government will likely step in to make you whole.

Posted by Bill, Fairfax, VA | Report as abusive