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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Investment Banker Skewers Academics Who Miss the Picture on Risk and Compensation

Candor is refreshing. Specifically, a new academic paper apparently suggests that incentive structures at banks at large banks was not a factor in the financial debacle. That conclusion of course does nto pass the smell test. Happily, rather than accepting a tenuous form of exoneration, The Epicurean Dealmaker skewers the study for missing the real world points. He/she or also make the point that public sharing full data would make studies far more useful.

TED’s conclusion?

"Take it from me: stock prices are an unreliable way to measure corporate performance, and they are an absolutely shitty way to predict executive compensation.

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The second methodological problem which this study seems to suffer from is perhaps more common to finance than other industries, especially in the more highly paid investment banking and corporate banking subsegments. For it is an absolute fact that a very large number of employees in your typical investment bank make enormous amounts of money. Not only do many more bankers than populate the executive suite bring home pay packages which could support small villages in Central Austria comfortably—that is, money which looks like “executive-level” pay anywhere else—but often the CEO and other executive officers of an investment bank are by no means the highest paid employees there. In a decent year, hundreds of employees at large investment banks make millions of dollars, and a substantial subsegment of those bring home tens of millions, if not more. If Messrs. Tonks and friends only collated and computed compensation data for named executive officers and non-executive directors—who, by the way, as non-producers are, relatively speaking, low-paid irrelevancies—then they missed the lion’s share of actual compensation going out the door in my industry. That is certainly the impression I get when I peruse Professor Tonk’s slim précis.

And here is the problem with that: all those uncounted flow traders, M&A bankers, structured products professionals, prop traders, leveraged finance bankers, and derivatives marketers—not to mention all the non-executive group and division heads above them—get paid buckets of simoleons for making money for the firm.

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And this is where I part ways with our dear Herr Professor Doktor regarding his conclusion. If I have correctly identified his study’s methodological weaknesses, not only has he measured the wrong independent variable, but he failed to apply it to the entire set of relevant dependent variables. He doesn’t collect the proper financial performance data—the gross revenue and gross profit metrics upon which investment bankers are paid in the real world—and he doesn’t correlate it against the revenue-producing employees who are producing them. Based upon how my industry actually conducts business and pays its employees, he hasn’t proved anything.

Sadly, Your Dedicated and Evenhanded Bloggist, like many others, would still like to see a comprehensive, data-based investigation of the question which Professor Tonks addresses. Unfortunately, I do not know how one could go about this without at least acquiring time series of aggregate payroll data for all revenue-producing employees at each financial firm, correlated against preferably group or divisional level revenue and profit results. You can just imagine how well that request would go over in the offices of Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein.

For my part, I continue to believe some banker bonuses were indeed contributory to the financial crisis. My industry’s pay practices and culture were built over decades when the vast majority of business investment banks conducted was agency business. Business like M&A, where you earn a fee for helping a client buy or sell a company, or security underwriting, where you earn a fee for placing client securities with outside investors, or securities market making, where you earn a spread for standing between buy- and sell-side investors as a middleman and temporary warehouser. None of these businesses entailed any material amount of persistent or hidden financial risk to investment banks: we did the deal, we got paid, and we moved on. There are no meaningful, dangerous “tail” exposures from such activities. Accordingly, investment banks got used to toting up the profit and loss for each banker and each business line at the end of each year and paying out a percentage of that as compensation to the people who either brought the money in or who could argue most persuasively they had. Simple.

The problem arose when investment banks (and their bastard cousins and often ultimate owners, commercial or universal banks) began conducting business asprincipals, either explicitly and in full knowledge, or—most dangerously—in total ignorance. Mouthwateringly profitable leveraged lending, structured products, complex derivatives, and proprietary investing of all kinds meant that investment banks no longer conducted business as short-term conduits of temporary risk, but began accumulating long-term financial risks on or off their balance sheet, often without their own knowledge. But when this happens, the old view that Joe in Structured Products should get a massive bonus in February because he brought in $100 million of fee revenue to the firm this year cannot cope with the fact that Joe’s fabulous trades expose the firm to $1 billion in potential losses over the next five years. Even if some investment banks did develop robust and accurate risk-pricing models which accurately tallied and kept track of the massive tail risks metastasizing on their balance sheets—and recent history puts this assertion in considerable doubt—almost none of them drew the connection to compensation practices. Projected firm profits on trades like Joe’s should never be totaled up front when determining Joe’s pay; they should be amortized over the life of the potential risks the ongoing trade poses to the firm. Most banks just didn’t seem to get this important point.3

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There really is a story to be told in here, somewhere, about exactly how and how much banker bonuses contributed to the aggregation of huge hidden and misunderstood risks in the global financial system. From what I can glean from limited evidence, Professor Tonks’ study is not it. Perhaps one day some academic will actually make the effort to understand how my industry works before they design a study to explain it.


Related reading: Ian Tonks, Bankers’ bonuses and the financial crisis (vox, January 8, 2012)"

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