Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bank Pay and the Financial Crisis: G-20 accounting rules, not bank bonuses, put the system at risk

Bank Pay and the Financial Crisis. By JEFFREY FRIEDMAN
G-20 accounting rules, not bank bonuses, put the system at risk.
The Wall Street Journal, page A21

The developed world's financial regulators and political leaders have, as one, decided what caused the financial crisis: the compensation systems used by banks to reward their employees. So the only question to be discussed at the G-20 summit that begins today in Pittsburgh is how draconian the restrictions on banker compensation should be.

The compensation theory is a familiar greed narrative: Bank employees, from CEOs to traders, knowingly risked the destruction of their companies because their pay rewarded them for short-term profits, regardless of long-term risks. It's conceivable this theory is true. But thus far there is no evidence for it—and much evidence against it.

For one thing, according to Rene Stulz of Ohio State, bank CEOs held about 10 times as much of their banks' stock as they were typically paid per year. Deliberately courting risk would have put their own fortunes at risk. Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers reportedly lost almost $1 billion due to the decline in the value of his holdings, while Sanford Weill of Citigroup reportedly lost half that amount.

In the only scholarly study of the relationship between banker pay and the financial crisis, Mr. Stulz and his colleague RĂ¼diger Fahlenbrach show that banks whose CEOs held a lot of bank stock did worse than banks whose CEOs held less stock. (The study was published in July on Another study by compensation consultant Watson Wyatt Worldwide in July shows a negative correlation between firm Z scores—a measure of their risk of bankruptcy—and their use of such widely criticized practices as executive bonuses, variable pay and stock options. These studies suggest that bank executives were simply ignorant of the risks their institutions were taking—not that they were deliberately courting disaster because of their pay packages.

Ignorance of risk is also suggested in a study by Viral V. Acharya and Matthew Richardson of New York University (just published in the journal Critical Review). Their research shows that 81% of the time the mortgage-backed securities purchased by bank employees were rated AAA. AAA securities produced lower returns than the AA and lower-rated tranches that were available. Bankers greedy for high returns and oblivious to risk would have bought BBBs, not AAAs.

Even more relevant to the question of culpability in the financial system's crisis is why banks were buying mortgage-backed securities at all.

Commercial bank capital holdings are governed by the Basel regulations, which are set by the financial regulators of the G-20 nations. In 2001, U.S. regulators enacted the Recourse Rule, amending the Basel I accords of 1988. Under this rule, American banks needed to hold far more of a capital cushion against individual mortgages and commercial loans than against mortgage-backed securities rated AA or AAA. Similar regulations, contained in the Basel II accords, began to be implemented across the other G-20 countries in 2007. The effect of these regulations was to create immense profit opportunities for a bank that shifted its portfolio from mortgages and commercial loans to mortgage-backed securities.

Bankers were of course seeking profits by purchasing mortgage-backed securities, but the evidence is that they thought they were being prudent in doing so. They bought AAA instead of more lucrative AA tranches, and they bought credit-default-swap and other insurance against default. None of this can be explained unless, on balance, the banks' management and risk-control systems kept in check whatever incentives to ignore risk had been created by the banks' compensation systems.

Banks did not behave uniformly. Citigroup bought as many mortgage-backed securities as it could; banks such as J.P. Morgan Chase did not. Were incentives at work? Yes. But all bankers faced the same artificially created incentive to buy mortgage-backed securities. Most bankers seem to have agreed with the regulators that the profit opportunity created by the regulations outweighed any risk in these securities, especially when they were rated AAA. But some bankers, like Morgan's Jamie Dimon, disagreed.

That type of disagreement, otherwise known as "competition," is the beating heart of capitalism. Different enterprises compete with each other by pursuing different strategies. These strategies encompass everything an enterprise does—including how it manages and pays its employees.

At bottom, all the practices of an enterprise are tacit predictions about which procedures will bring the most reward and which ones will avoid excessive risk. Accurate predictions bring profits and survival; mistaken predictions bring losses and bankruptcy. But nobody can know in advance which predictions are right. By allowing different capitalists' fallible predictions to compete, capitalism spreads a society's bets among a variety of different ideas. That, not the pursuit of self-interest, is the secret of capitalism's achievements.

To be sure, capitalists' different ideas are all, in the end, about how to gain profit. That's why incentives matter. But what matters even more are diverse predictions about where profits—and losses—are likely to be found. For this reason, herd behavior is a danger to capitalism, if the herd bets wrong. But herd behavior is imposed on capitalists every time a regulation is enacted—and regulators, being as human as bankers, can be wrong.

Regulations homogenize. The Basel rules imposed on the whole banking system a single idea about what makes for prudent banking. Even when regulations take the form of inducements rather than prohibitions, they skew the risk/reward calculations of all capitalists subject to them. The whole point of regulation is to make those being regulated do what the regulators predict will be beneficial. If the regulators are mistaken, the whole system is at risk.

That was what happened with the G-20's own Basel rules. Now the G-20 has decided to blame the crisis on bank compensation systems, which it proposes to homogenize just as it had previously homogenized bank capital allocation. What has not been explained is why we should trust that the G-20's regulations won't be mistaken once again.

Mr. Friedman is a visiting scholar in the government department at the University of Texas, Austin, and the editor of the journal Critical Review, which has just published a special issue on the causes of the financial crisis.