Sunday 15 February 2009

Because I'm worth it

I worked for an investment bank for about 18 years, and was therefore a part of the bonus culture which is now rightly being criticised (although as a support rather than front line person my bonuses were never big enough to be a cause for concern, except to me). I think I can comment on why the culture grew as it did.

People have written before about how the bonus culture works in banks; from the outside it is bizarre and worth a novella. The annual bonus round is a critical part of managing people and therefore the business. This is because rather sadly the bonus is how a generation of bankers came to value themselves: it was the principal measure of their worth as a human being. And this is how the current crazy position has come about. People think they deserve something even though they are part of an organisation which has massively destroyed value – and in some cases, requires tax-payers money just to continue to exist.

I’d distinguish bonuses for three types of people:
- The Board and top management. It is fair to motivate them by some form of long term bonus based on performance. Ideally this should be long term and based on long term increases in shareholder value. In this regard, they are no different to directors/top management of all companies. In 2008 most deserve nothing (a few banks globally, probably only one British one, have performed well and their management may deserve a reward for surviving). I say Bank boards are no different from other companies - but in one regard they are; as I discuss below, margins in banks and financial companies tend to be higher than normal companies. And perhaps schemes should not reward that extra profit.
- The front line people: traders, salesmen and so on. This is where there is most controversy. Traditionally they have been paid a bonus based on their performance - or the performance of their bit of the bank - each year. This is often a standard percentage of profit or revenue. This is like many salesmen or business getters in all companies: superficially it seems reasonable. But:
o Margins in banks tend to be artificially high;
o Many products sold are long term. It is not possible to tell whether or not they are profitable in just one year.
o Both bankers and banks underestimate just how much of the profit comes because of the franchise of the bank – its size, its customer base, its brand and so on. The real contribution by individuals is smaller than they think.
o Many banks see the profits made by more established ones and want to compete – and seek to recruit people to start new business areas. They offer inflated and often guaranteed bonuses to tempt them away. Usually, these new players never make their expected profits.

The problems at most banks have been caused by a small number of business units and a small number of employees. Most business lines have done reasonably well. Hence the temptation to pay some people. But most banks really don’t have the money: they have lost a fortune and depend on taxpayer support. There should be no bonuses at these banks.

(It’s not easy to implement this if there are contractual commitments. But if they really want, Governments can do things. The problem wouldn’t be there if the Government had been more decisive about nationalising the banks in a bad condition, transferring bad assets into a “bad bank” and putting the clean bank back into the private sector.)

- Junior and support staff. They have usually got a small bonus based on overall results and meeting individual targets. Effectively, this is part of their pay. But if it’s coming out of taxpayer money – as it is for a number of banks this year – it needs more justification than normal. Especially as those targets are often defined as selling products to customers who do not always need them.

The real problem of financial services in general and investment banking in particular is that, through the ages, the true value of their products are only known with the benefit of hindsight. And the time period is often long. But the bank usually has a much better idea of the price than the customer who will often therefore overpay resulting in the bank making above average margins, and then sharing that with their employees.

As it happens, in the last few years, the banks didn’t know the value of their products either; they misjudged the risks on the basis of flawed mathematics and artificially cheap money, and actually sold their products too cheaply and lost money when the truth became clear. This was made worse because they over-expanded – they borrowed and lent too much in relation to their capital, which meant that the losses have wiped out their capital. This over-borrowing was encouraged by regulators, supported by Governments. And in the UK, it made worse because the reorganisation of banking regulation in 1997 by our current Prime Minister removed a market focus from bank regulation.

The inherent problems were made worse by another factor which developed during the 1990s; the most profitable parts of banks appeared to be those that sold long term derivative products. Such products really could not be properly priced or even understood by many customers. They were frequently designed to create a false impression by ignoring the spirit and twisting the letter of laws by for example turning highly taxed profits into lower taxed ones, or delaying or bringing forward profits. Bankers engaged in such legalistic behaviour easily lost common sense and sight of the real world, and potentially their moral standards. The resulting culture of high hidden margins and payouts to employees trickled through to the rest of the banking system and also fuelled the "Master of the Universe" syndrome.

I’ve tried to explain why what at first seems reasonable grew into stupidity. This year, bonuses should be non-existent or small and certainly should not be paid by taxpayer supported banks. Going forward, shareholders can’t be relied on to control bank bonuses because of the lack of transparent margins and the incentives of competition and mis-pricing. The regulators need to:
- Restrict bank gearing so they cannot overexpand;
- Require capital to support "off-balance sheet companies"
- Separate investment from Retail banking. Customer deposits should not be used to fund high risk trading.
- Ensure bonus schemes are linked to long term profits; if they are not then capital required should be incresaed for that business unit (so less business can be done).

And customers should only buy what they understand and borrow what they can afford. I remain convinced that the finance industry has on balance done more good than harm – it has enabled the increase in wealth in the last few years – but at a cost much higher than it need have been. Regulators and bankers have a part to play in behaving more sensibly in future, but so do customers.

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