Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Obama realigns bailout bankers' incentives

Today, Obama made headlines for capping executive pay at banks that accept "major" bailout funds at $500,000. Here, though, is the real news in his statement:
Finally, these guidelines we’re putting in place are only the beginning of a long-term effort. We’re going to examine the ways in which the means and manner of executive compensation have contributed to a reckless culture and quarter-by-quarter mentality that in turn have wrought havoc in our financial system. We’re going to be taking a look at broader reforms so that executives are compensated for sound risk management and rewarded for growth measured over years, not just days or weeks.
That promise gets at the core problem, nicely framed last January in the FT by Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist at the IMF:
True alpha [the value the investment manager's abilities contribute to the investment process] can be measured only in the long run and with the benefit of hindsight – in the same way as the acumen of someone writing earthquake insurance can be measured only over a period long enough for earthquakes to have occurred. Compensation structures that reward managers annually for profits, but do not claw these rewards back when losses materialise, encourage the creation of fake alpha. Significant portions of compensation should be held in escrow to be paid only long after the activities that generated that compensation occur.
A week later, FT columnist Martin Wolf elaborated:

the only way to deal with this challenge is to address the incentives head on and, as Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, argued in a brilliant article last week ("Bankers' pay is deeply flawed", FT, January 9 2008), the central conflict is between the employees (above all, management) and everybody else. By paying huge bonuses on the basis of short-term performance in a system in which negative bonuses are impossible, banks create gigantic incentives to disguise risk-taking as value-creation.

We would be better off with Jupiter's 12-year "year", since it takes about that long to know how profitable strategies have been. The point is that a year is an astronomical, not an economic, phenomenon (as it once was, when harvests were decisive). So we must ensure that a substantial part of pay is better aligned to the realities of the business: that is, is made in restricted stock redeemable over a run of years (ideally, as many as 10).

Yet individual institutions cannot change their systems of remuneration on their own, without losing talented staff to the competition. So regulators may have to step in. The idea of such official intervention is horrible, but the alternative of endlessly repeated crises is even worse.

The big points here are, first, we cannot pretend that the way the financial system behaves is not a matter of public interest - just look at what is happening in the US and UK today; and, second, if the problem is to be fixed, incentives for decision-makers have to be better aligned with the outcomes....

All bonuses and a portion of salary for top managers should be paid in restricted stock, redeemable in instalments over, say, 10 years or, if regulators are feeling generous, five. I understand that the bankers will not like this. Yet one thing is surely now quite clear: just as war is too important to be left to generals, banking is too important to be left to bankers, however much one may like them.

For bailout recipients, that kind of long-term tie-up begins today. In addition to the $500,000 salary cap, Obama announced:

And if these executives receive any additional compensation, it will come in the form of stock that can’t be paid up until taxpayers are paid back for their assistance.

Incentive pay for reducing your bank's contribution to the national debt. Will anyone collect?

UPDATE: Some timely further perspective on distorted pay incentives today from Thomas Frank, lone liberal on the WSJ op-ed page:

...Wall Street's compensation system isn't just aesthetically displeasing to liberal snobs. It is the very heart of the problem. According to Bill Black, a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an authority on dysfunctional financial systems, "It is the compensation system that has proved to be the weak point in everything critical that went wrong, that has produced a global catastrophe."

At each stage of the disaster, Mr. Black told me -- loan officers, real-estate appraisers, accountants, bond ratings agencies -- it was pay-for-performance systems that "sent them wrong."

The need for new compensation rules is most urgent at failed banks. This is not merely because is would make for good PR, but because lavish executive bonuses sometimes create an incentive to hide losses, to take crazy risks, and even, according to Mr. Black, to "loot the place through seemingly normal corporate mechanisms." This is why, he continues, it is "essential to redesign and limit executive compensation when regulating failed or failing banks."

Footnote: Obama ought to keep the malign effects of distorted pay incentives in mind when the subject of pay for performance for teachers comes up. Otherwise, our kids' diplomas may have all the value of an AAA mortgage-backed security.

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