Bonus Fury

is everywhere.  I am not sure that I have heard anyone actually explain what should be done or why they are furious, other than the general idea that there were bail-outs. 

I can think of two reasons to object to the mega bonuses that can be used to help direct future bonuses:

  1. There is not any evidence of any claw back being applied in the bonus calculations.  It is likely that a significant number of the folks who have the most culpability for the immense losses of the past are no longer there.  Doing a claw back from folks who were not involved would as is pointed out by the bankers be counter productive.  But they are only partly correct.  While many are gone, some do remain.  In addition, there are many folks remaining at the bank who were indirectly responsible (or should have been indirectly responsible) who are in the executive ranks and on the board as well.  There should be claw backs that apply to everyone who is up the chain of command and in a role with significant corporate wide responsibility.  This would be very productive and would send the signal that executives are responsible.  It would reduce the degree to which executives are willing to look the other way when a strong business unit manager insists on doing something that might not be in the best interests of the firm.  In addition, too little is said of board compensation.  Board members of firms that needed to be bailed out should suffer financial consequences.  Strong consideration should be given to reducing board fees in a manner that is commensurate with what is done to claw back bonuses for executives. 
  2. For almost two years now, the Fed has been depressing interest rates to levels that flirt with a zero value.  They do this to help the banks so that the banks will help the economy.  This has created a situation where the banks can operate with a zero cost of good sold.  Any business on the planet could show a profit with zero COGS.  To the extent that banks are taking earnings that result from these low interest rates and turning around and giving the resulting profits to their employees as bonus they are subverting the purpose of the low rates.  This fact has been true for a long time, but the Greenspan Fed that was famous for low interest rates and for ignoring the gross inefficiencies of the approach.   The lower interest rates take money from savers and transfers it to debtors and banks and bankers.  In this case, the interest rates are being kept low both to bolster bank profits as well as to keep money cheap to spur borrowing to encourage spending.  However, credit tightening by the banks has jacked up their effective margins (spread differentials less default losses).  So bank profits are soaring because they are (a) paying a trivial amount for funds and (b) not lending as much of the money to as many businesses and people as they had before.  In addition, in 2008, the banks were able to obtain debt capital at a rate averaging 0.7% with a government guarantee which is expected to rise to 4.7% (per Reuters).  The differential there is purely a gift from the taxpayers, but a gift that was meant to be used to recapitalize the banks to provide funds for loans. And the banks are paying bonuses on these gains, rather than keeping the excess profits to build up balance sheets to be used when they regain the courage to lend.  So this is proving to be a very inefficient way to move the economy.  The flow of funds through the bankers bonuses back into the economy is just too inefficient of a way to stimulate the economy.  Those excess profits that come from both of these interest expense subsidies must be excluded from the bonuses, or else the subsidies must be stopped and the money used in a more efficient manner to stimulate the economy. 

So there are probably several alternatives to make this more efficient and less bothersome.   We just need to figure out exactly what about it that is bothersome and frame it in a way that can direct policy.  Otherwise, we end up with piecemeal solutions aplied in a wack-a-mole approach to problem solving.

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One Comment on “Bonus Fury”

  1. Max Rudolph Says:

    These excess profits due to low interest rates are a negative opportunity cost. Do something, anything, and you will be rewarded with profits. Despite lots of talk about reform, clearly nothing has happened yet. We have not cleaned out the system.


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