In Our Defense

The financial crisis was a veritable gold mine for columnists like me. I, for one, published at least five articles on the subject, including its causes, the lessons learned, and, most self-deprecating of all, our excesses that contributed to it.

Looking back at these writings of mine, I feel as though I may have been a bit unfair on us. I did try to blunt my accusations of avarice (and perhaps decadence) by pointing out that it was the general air of insatiable greed of the era that we live in that spawned the obscenities and the likes of Madoff. But I did concede the existence of a higher level of greed (or, more to the point, a more sated kind of greed) among us bankers and quantitative professionals. I am not recanting my words in this piece now, but I want to point out another aspect, a justification if not an absolution.

Why would I want to defend bonuses and other excesses when another wave of public hatred is washing over the global corporations, thanks to the potentially unstoppable oil spill? Well, I guess I am a sucker for lost causes, much like Rhett Butler, as our quant way of tranquil life with insane bonuses is all but gone with the wind now. Unlike Mr. Butler, however, I have to battle and debunk my own arguments presented here previously.

One of the arguments that I wanted to poke holes in was the fair compensation angle. It was argued in our circles that the fat paycheck was merely an adequate compensation for the long hours of hard work that people in our line of work put in. I quashed it, I think, by pointing out other thankless professions where people work harder and longer with no rewards to write home about. Hard work has no correlation with what one is entitled to. The second argument that I made fun of was the ubiquitous “talent” angle. At the height of the financial crisis, it was easy to laugh off the talent argument. Besides, there was little demand for the talent and a lot of supply, so that the basic principle of economics could apply, as our cover story shows in this issue.

Of all the arguments for large compensation packages, the most convincing one was the profit-sharing one. When the top talents take huge risks and generate profit, they need to be given a fair share of the loot. Otherwise, where is the incentive to generate even more profits? This argument lost a bit of its bite when the negative profits (by which I indeed mean losses) needed to be subsidized. This whole saga reminded me of something that Scott Adams once said of risk takers. He said that risk takers, by definition, often fail. So do morons. In practice, it is hard to tell them apart. Should the morons reap handsome rewards? That is the question.

Having said all this in my previous articles, now it is time to find some arguments in our defense. I left out one important argument in my previous columns because it did not support my general thesis — that the generous bonuses were not all that justifiable. Now that I have switched allegiance to the lost cause, allow me to present it as forcefully as I can. In order to see compensation packages and performance bonuses in a different light, we first look at any traditional brick-and-mortar company. Let’s consider a hardware manufacturer, for instance. Suppose this hardware shop of ours does extremely well one year. What does it do with the profit? Sure, the shareholders take a healthy bite out of it in terms of dividends. The employees get decent bonuses, hopefully. But what do we do to ensure continued profitability?

We could perhaps see employee bonuses as an investment in future profitability. But the real investment in this case is much more physical and tangible than that. We could invest in hardware manufacturing machinery and technology improving the productivity for years to come. We could even invest in research and development, if we subscribe to a longer temporal horizon.

Looking along these lines, we might ask ourselves what the corresponding investment would be for a financial institution. How exactly do we reinvest so that we can reap benefits in the future?

We can think of better buildings, computer and software technologies etc. But given the scale of the profits involved, and the cost and benefit of these incremental improvements, these investments don’t measure up. Somehow, the impact of these tiny investments is not as impressive in the performance of a financial institution compared to a brick-and-mortar company. The reason behind this phenomenon is that the “hardware” we are dealing with (in the case of a financial institution) is really human resources — people — you and me. So the only sensible reinvestment option is in people.

So we come to the next question — how do we invest in people? We could use any number of euphemistic epithets, but at the end of the day, it is the bottom line that counts. We invest in people by rewarding them. Monetarily. Money talks. We can dress it up by saying that we are rewarding performance, sharing profits, retaining talents etc. But ultimately, it all boils down to ensuring future productivity, much like our hardware shop buying a fancy new piece of equipment.

Now the last question has to be asked. Who is doing the investing? Who benefits when the productivity (whether current or future) goes up? The answer may seem too obvious at first glance — it is clearly the shareholders, the owners of the financial institution who will benefit. But nothing is black and white in the murky world of global finance. The shareholders are not merely a bunch of people holding a piece of paper attesting their ownership. There are institutional investors, who mostly work for other financial institutions. They are people who move large pots of money from pension funds and bank deposits and such. In other words, it is the common man’s nest egg, whether or not explicitly linked to equities, that buys and sells the shares of large public companies. And it is the common man who benefits from the productivity improvements brought about by investments such as technology purchases or bonus payouts. At least, that is the theory.

This distributed ownership, the hallmark of capitalism, raises some interesting questions, I think. When a large oil company drills an unstoppable hole in the seabed, we find it easy to direct our ire at its executives, looking at their swanky jets and other unconscionable luxuries they allow themselves. Aren’t we conveniently forgetting the fact that all of us own a piece of the company? When the elected government of a democratic nation declares war on another country and kills a million people (speaking hypothetically, of course), should the culpa be confined to the presidents and generals, or should it percolate down to the masses that directly or indirectly delegated and entrusted their collective power?

More to the point, when a bank doles out huge bonuses, isn’t it a reflection of what all of us demand in return for our little investments? Viewed in this light, is it wrong that the taxpayers ultimately had to pick up the tab when everything went south? I rest my case.