Cupidity and Stupidity Both Run Rampant on Wall Street

If Wall Street bankers are so smart, how can they be so dumb when it comes to paying out bonuses?

Don’t these people read newspapers? Don’t they watch Dylan Ratigan on CNBC or Glenn Beck on FOX News, castigating bankers for their greed and ingratitude to the taxpayers who saved their firms? Haven’t they sat through one speech too many by President Obama insisting that they stop giving million dollar and multi-million dollar bonuses? Have they no idea what it means for the average worker to struggle in an economy with 10% unemployment and another 8% underemployed?

And yet Goldman Sachs is on schedule to give out record bonuses this year totaling nearly $20 billion, or half a million dollars on average per employee. Morgan Stanley is not far behind, and the investment bankers and traders at Merrill Lynch (now wholly owned by Bank of America) and Bear Stearns (now wholly owned by JP Morgan Chase) are going to be treated royally as well. What is it about these people who are supposedly so smart in figuring out the markets but dumb as posts when it comes to judging the larger world in which they operate?

To get to the bottom of this, it helps to know the environment in which these people have been operating, and the history behind Wall Street’s investment banking culture. It is a culture of entitlement, born of the fact that these investment banks operate like private partnerships, even though they are now all public companies.

Thirty years or so in the past, all the Wall Street firms were private partnerships. The partners were the owners, and their personal wealth was held in their ownership shares in the partnership. If it was a profitable year, the partners personally benefited, and their ownership position increased, some of them more than others because shareholdings were divvied up based on a partner’s contribution to the firm. As a Wall Street banker, you could live well enough, but not astoundingly so until you retired, which is when you could cash out your personal shares by selling them for cash to the remaining partners.

This system had discipline to it, because if the firm had a bad year the partners felt it immediately with a hit to the value of their holdings in the firm. Wall Street firms therefore kept a very close eye on risk and return, and for the most part avoided risk by making their money scalping a little bit here and there off each bond or stock offering they brought to the public on behalf of their clients.

Around 1980, this system began to break down. Investment bankers were watching some of their clients in the hedge fund business, or in the leveraged buyout business, make unbelievable fortunes by taking big risks and reaping outlandish rewards. Wall Street knew that their customers weren’t any smarter than they themselves were (the customers were often far dumber), and they realized they could do as well for themselves if they could have access to big amounts of capital in order to take on much more risk.

The public had to be brought into the partnership. In other words, the Wall Street firms had to abandon the partnership legal structure, organize themselves as a public company, sell shares of equity to the public, and use the capital they received to ramp up their risk taking. The secret of making this work for the Wall Street bankers was a fundamental understanding of how public companies in America operate: the shareholders are passive, often indirect investors, through mutual funds especially which don’t pester management with uncomfortable questions and rarely vote against management on any issue brought to the shareholders. This system allows management in corporate America to act as if they own the company themselves, and to run the company in their own personal interest.

This is precisely how Wall Street firms behaved themselves once they went public. The management acted like partners even though they were technically now beholden to the shareholders. They redirected the firms’ focus onto much riskier activity, and added huge amounts of debt to their balance sheets so that like hedge funds or private equity firms, they could begin making 20% to 30% returns on their equity. They began paying out gargantuan bonuses using a formula that paid out in bonuses around half of their revenue ”“ not net income (a much smaller number). Profits that otherwise would have gone to the shareholders as retained earnings were instead paid out year after year in multi-million dollar bonuses.

The shareholders put up with this because, first of all they were passive investors. The average American corporate employee who owns a 401k checks a box saying ”œstock market investment portion”, but they don’t get to say which stocks are bought. This decision is left to some mutual fund manager who may decide to hold Goldman Sachs shares for six months when it looks like the market is rallying short term. If the mutual fund owns the stock long term, it still hasn’t been in a position to complain in the past twenty or more years, because the stock markets were enjoying an unprecedented, extended rally, especially for financial industry stocks.

The only time this system broke down was once last year, when Lehman Bros. was thrown on to the ropes over rumors (largely true) that it had huge losses in its real estate portfolio and it was in danger of running out of liquidity. Mutual funds dumped the stock in a frenzy, pushing the price close to zero. The collapse in value was also helped along by a peculiar propensity of Wall Street firms to engage in naked short selling, pushing shares lower even though the seller doesn’t own or hasn’t borrowed the shares from someone else as would be the case with normal short selling.

Lehman, unlike Bear Stearns which was forced to merge with JP Morgan Chase by the federal government, was allowed to go bankrupt. The resulting systemic crisis was so severe that the government stepped up immediately in support of all the other remaining Wall Street firms, each of which was beginning to experience the same pressure on their stocks as Lehman had gone through before bankruptcy. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were allowed to become commercial banks, borrow from the Federal Reserve, and receive all sorts of benefits and privileges, including sweetheart deals with the government that provided them with guaranteed profits.

The federal government even took shareholdings in these investment banks, through the TARP investment legislation. So how were you ”“ the taxpayers ”“ treated by the Wall Street firms? Like dirt, basically. You were treated like any other shareholders. You were ignored. Goldman Sachs in particular has gone on doing exactly what it always did, expecting its shareholders to be perfectly happy that the stock price of the firm is rising again, and then paying out 50% of this year’s revenues to themselves as employees. Goldman Sachs is making some small concessions to public pressure; it’s paying a measly $100 million to one of its charitable funds, and it is paying some of the bonuses in GS stock rather than cash. Still, the shareholders are taking it on the chin once again. Money that would have gone into their account as retained earnings is siphoned off into bonuses for management and staff.

You can see what has gone badly wrong here:

a) Wall Street bankers convert to a public corporation from a partnership, but continue to act as if they are a partnership, rewarding themselves with absurd bonuses at the expense of the public shareholders.
b) Wall Street bankers leverage their firms to the hilt, and eventually a highly leveraged financial system hits a wall in 2007 and collapses.
c) The federal government steps in and rescues all sorts of collapsing firms like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG (a company that was neither a commercial nor an investment bank and had no claim on government support other than the risk its collapse posed to the overall economy, or at least to Wall Street).
d) The ”œmarket” ”“ the be all and end all in the world of high finance ”“ is not allowed to work its magic. The weak, the stupid, the greedy, and the corrupt are not forced to face up to their faults and suffer the consequences of their mistakes. Market discipline is squelched by the government in the interest of preventing what is assumed to be a calamitous fall in national economic output.
e) The surviving Wall Street firms have no reason therefore to change their risk taking appetite, nor their avaricious habits when it comes to paying themselves bonuses.

Given this sequence of events, should we all just get used to Wall Street extracting preposterous amounts of personal wealth from the economy? In the short term, yes. Nothing can be done now short of clawing back the bonuses through legislation, which is not going to happen from a Congress bought and paid for by Wall Street.

But note this: Wall Street’s current behavior may be myopic in the extreme. A day may come, sometime soon perhaps, when the credit crisis reasserts itself. Money and credit may once again become hard to get; there is already talk by the government of shutting down many of its support programs. Even if these programs are allowed to remain, the continuing liquidation of debt by American consumers and corporations is on its own likely to bring back credit constraints. When Wall Street turns once again to Washington for protection, this time the door may be closed. This time even a paid-for Congress and a compliant administration in the White House may have had enough. This time Goldman Sachs may be pushed into the pit with Lehman Bros.

One way or another, the day of multi-million dollar bonus payments in the finance sector is coming to an end, not just for Wall Street firms, but for the hedge funds and leveraged buyout firms that are no longer able to work their alchemy because no one is willing to finance them. The global economy can no longer afford to have so much of its wealth siphoned off to such activity. In this respect, if we return to our opening question ”œHow dumb can Wall Street be?” ”“ the answer is very dumb indeed. So dumb that they can’t see that business as usual exists now only because the government and the taxpayers short-circuited the market mechanisms that would have destroyed Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and probably Citigroup, Bank of America and quite a few other big players as well.

Business as usual also exists because the global bond market is still allowing America to borrow trillions of dollars in new government debt. This too is coming to an end. Long term interest rates have been ratcheting up lately, and something happened last week that was very important but got hardly any notice. Moody’s the ratings agency said for the first time that the US cannot expect to maintain its Aaa rating forever in the face of such deficits. In fact, the firm suggested that the US has about three or four years to begin reducing its deficit or its Aaa rating will be lost.

Is there somebody out there on Wall Street, in the upper echelons of Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley or JP Morgan Chase, who is paying serious attention to what is happening to the US credit position? Is there anybody thinking long term? If so, they have to understand that the game is over, and their financial and securitization business model is broken beyond repair. If so, they should be pounding the table in their board room, demanding that the bank or firm change course immediately and exit these businesses.

If so, we won’t hear about them until long after these companies have themselves gone to the wall and finally faced up to the market discipline that should have been imposed last year when the credit crisis first erupted.

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Numerian is a devoted author and poster on The Agonist, specializing in business, finance, the global economy, and politics. In real life he goes by the non-nom de plume of Garrett Glass and hides out in Oak Park, IL, where he spends time writing novels on early Christianity (and an occasional tract on God and religion). You can follow his writing career on his website,

33 CommentsLeave a comment

  • What has that to do with the next quarter’s results to keep the shareholders asleep?

    Or with my year end bonus, after which I can retire.

    Numerian, half a million per employee sounds a lot. The real news is in the distribution of the largesse, as I’m willing to bet that a secretary won’t be taking home half a million…

    Got any numbers on the distribution?

  • Your post assumes that the financial managers are stupid to kill the golden-egg-laying goose. Why? The guys who are taking the bonuses are getting theirs now, big time. Why should they risk any delay that might ultimately get them less? And if the financial firms collapse after they’ve got theirs, why should they give a rat’s ass?

  • The top management team take home $60 million or more. Certain key traders or investment bankers may get more than that. Managing Directors tend to get at least $1 million.

    Secretaries and support staff tend to bring home $30,000 or so, which is still extremely generous compared to any other opportunities they may have.

  • Especially if they can’t cash in the stock until after five years. That’s the type of compensation reform that is now being discussed on Wall Street, with even top management recognizing that they may need to tie people in longer to the interests of the firm. There is even discussion of claw back provisions in case losses occur later on, and this would be easier to do if the bonus is still sitting around in the firm in the form of a deferred equity grant.

    Even with such a system, I think that there is still an incredible obtuseness at work on Wall Street. They “just don’t get it,” as the saying goes.

  • drunk on power, wealth and entitlement … and drunks are unable to access their conscience.

    Tolerating prostitution is tolerating abuse and torture of women and children.

  • I didn’t think he was off base. The most charitable thing we can say about our financial mess is that we are going the route of the Japanese – massive public works projects, and hiding the loan losses inside the zombie banks for no one to notice. Black calls the latter a form of accounting fraud, and who’s to say he is wrong.

  • Their behaviour is also similar to a set of compulsive gamblers who cannot kick the addiction.

    The addiction being the money? Their behaviour is easily described as sick.

  • Not likely. These firms now treat the citizens the same way that they treat their passive investors. Goldman might say, “Numerian, please, we gave out $1.0 mil per employee just a few months ago. This is progress!.”

    I really like this forecast: “When Wall Street turns once again to Washington for protection, this time the door may be closed.” It was closed ever so briefly with the defeat of the first bailout. If there is a next time, I predict that the administration and Congress will once again open the door (it’s their nature) and that will trigger the end of the “bipartisan” one party system as we know it. There’s really no difference between the patrons, Wall Street, and their wards in politics; it’s a seamless system.

    Under rational governance, there would be massive expropriation aimed at those firms and individuals who rigged the system and a restructuring that would provide confidence for investments. But alas …

    Thank you for this excellent explanation and analysis.

  • regarding the evolution of Wall Street investment banks from private closely-held partnerships into publicly held corporations is the legal impact of the newly adopted structure, since my understanding is that publicly-held entities are mandated to strive for the highest reasonable return on investment for its shareholders. Failure to demonstrate due diligence toward this objective can result in potential lawsuits from shareholders.

    Now, if the market is dominated by irresponsible and fraudulent financial institutions, all of whom are squeezing money as fast as they can out of a growing bubble that happens to be cheered on by both the media and government authorities like Alan Greenspan, and you happen to be the only corporation whose management team has the foresight to refuse this temptation based on the clear evidence that people like Brooksley Born were presenting, wouldn’t you be potentially liable to be sued by your shareholders for passing up this “great” opportunity? Is this in fact an example of the stupidity of the system that, under certain circumstances, punishes responsible behavior?

  • Shareholder lawsuits are usually based on a sudden decline in earnings with accusations that management knew of adverse information but withheld it from the shareholders. I’ve not heard of a suit alleging management has not pursued the same opportunities as those of its competitors, but I suppose anything could happen.

    Publicly held companies should strive to optimize earnings, not maximize them. Anyone can maximize earnings by taking on excessive risk; it’ll work for a short while. Optimizing earnings is a lot harder, because it requires carefully gauging risk against return. A corporation also has to take into consideration the interests of its other stakeholders, not just the shareholders. The customers, the employees, and the communities that support the company are all important stakeholders whose interests sometimes supersede those of the shareholders. You cannot, for example, renege on a commitment with a community to build a plant just because doing so may save the shareholders some money in the short term.

    Your point about unfair competition is still valid, however. If your competitors cheat customers or engage in accounting fraud and get away with it, you are at a tremendous disadvantage. Capitalism needs arbiters and watchdogs to prevent such behavior, or the system simply doesn’t work. This is why the crony capitalism we have begun to see in the US undermines the entire capitalist ethic, and pushes us into the company of third world countries.

  • for an informative response. I’m always reminded of Milton Friedman’s comment to the effect that, if corporations simply satisfy their shareholders (and, of course, the government limits itself to incremental increases in the money supply), everything else takes care of itself. So much for that.

    I guess the issue of “optimize” versus “maximize” also goes back to Adam Smith’s credo of “enlightened” self-interest as the foundation of effective capitalism. It’s the “enlightened” part that’s a problem, since it’s often a judgment call as to whether a corporation’s policies start to drift toward short term gain at the expense of long term health. I think it’s hard for anyone to argue at this point that, without adequate regulation, the so-called “free market” system won’t inevitably deteriorate into speculation. On that note, I was amused when Paul Craig Roberts, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and a proponent of supply side economics, recently said that, if Karl Marx were alive today, he should receive a Nobel Prize.

  • but small banks that invested conservatively were hurt by banks that took excessive risk and offerred better terms on investment.

    And now, as the mainstreet economy fails, those small banks will see property devaluation and increased numbers of delinquint loans. When they become insolvent who will be there to take over?

    The mega-banks that caused much of the grief, flush with government money.

    I did inhale.

  • He said early on in The Wealth of Nations that corporations cannot be allowed to act unfettered by regulations or laws. They would seek out their own self interest at the exclusion of the interest of others. He was a proponent of checks on corporate power, which means that his invisible hand of the market was not to be interpreted as being able to solve all problems on its own.

  • I’m sure a lot of “free market” advocates aren’t aware that Adam Smith was an avid supporter of trade unions as a critical check against corporate greed and that, as I understand it, in our country’s earlier history, the government only suffered corporations as temporary entities chartered for specific projects better left to the private sector. The thought that corporations could one day be legally considered as individuals with the same protection under the Bill of Rights would have been unthinkable.

  • but ignore the bits that they don’t like. It’s certainly not just a conservative/free market problem, but it’s a big problem on that side. They ignore Ayn Rand’s atheism (and frankly, i don’t see how her “philosophy” can be implemented without it). And a significant portion of modern conservatism’s philosophy stems from Burke’s “central belief” in original sin, except that there isn’t much evidence that it was a central belief of Burke.

    But with a population that, to a disturbing degree, is poorly educated, intellectual/philosophical consistency is unnecessary. Barnum said there’s a customer born every minute; if he’s uneducated then he’s a sucker.

  • Her philosophy is the polar opposite of everything taught by Jesus, especially in his Sermon on the Mount. She is a miracle worker, though. Somehow she got herself and her Objectivism associated with the far right, shoe-horned in between the Pentecostals who speak in tongues, and the Fundamentalists who believe in the inerrant word of God through the Bible.

  • Either they think that things are great, in which case they grab a fortune, or that the banking system is living on borrowed time, in which case they grab a fortune while they still can. If they’re gone before the crash, they win.

  • I’d guess that the majority of Americans make it all the way through school without ever encountering the basics of philosophical thought. Those who go to college may get syllogisms somewhere, but that’s about it except for those who take formal philosophy courses. As a result, we can enjoy a cafeteria belief system without needing more than an emotional attachment to snippets and without even being aware of internal contradictions. You can just love Rand’s adolescent narcissism and equally love the self-righteous nostalgia of being a saved Christian.

    We think schools should train workers, not educate citizens.

  • I am wondering how it can make sense that the dollars value against other currencies rises and falls in the opposite direction of stocks. Are foreigners driving the current stock market rally?

    We need a NATION WIDE STRIKE for Real healthcare reform

  • Ian Welsh’s post provides some criticism regarding what is currently known about the administration’s proposals to cap Wall Street pay. We know that the Pay Czar has put a cap on the amount of cash executives at some banks can take this year. By “cash” I mean literally the cash component of the pay package; these executives can still get lucrative stock options, stock grants that vest in three or more years, pension promises, and so forth. Also, the caps are limited to BOA and Citigroup and the banks still left owing TARP money. Goldman Sachs and JPM Chase are not included because they paid back their TARP debt and are presumably healthy again.

    Going in to next year, all the big banks will have to abide by some of the newer proposals coming out of the administration, which will require the banks to submit their compensation plans first to the federal government for review and approval. What will be acceptable is not yet revealed, other than the government will want to see the compensation tied into long term performance; no more giving bankers millions and then watching the fruits of their labor blow up a few years later. The millions in bonuses will be sequestered first to make sure nothing blows up years later, and then it will be paid out. This is probably easier said than done, but everyone is saying it must be done somehow, including industry compensation consultants. One way is to give out more in stock grants that wait three or more years before vesting and capable of being sold by the recipient.

    Ian’s complaints are that the Fed cannot be trusted to police pay, because it is a captive of the banking industry. The Fed will get wishy-washy and secretive and allow large grants still to go through. Ian mentions that Paul Volcker really wants to see banks forbidden from investment banking, like in the old days under the Glass-Steagall Act. Volcker also wants to raise the marginal tax rate on $1.0 million bonuses to 90%. Ian’s not sure this will work but he thinks Volcker’s ideas are probably better than the thought of letting things stay the way they are.

    The industry complains that top flight banking talent will leave for greener pastures if pay is restrictive. Ian says let ’em. We don’t them or their services. Pastures are probably not that much greener anyway.

    In the comments section there is a complex colloquy between tjfxh and Ian over neoliberal economic theory and a newer theory of monetary policy that tj is reading about. tj is of the belief that this new theory better explains how monetary policy works and does not, and it uses an accounting approach that is easy to understand. Ian hasn’t read all the books yet on this theory, but he suspects it is missing some parts such as the velocity of money. So nothing has actually been resolved in this discussion.

    While this sounds very esoteric, the question of how money and credit are created in the economy is an important one. For the longest time the Fed claimed that it alone through the function of reserve banking had the ability to create money. Others said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, with their government backing, were acting like central banks and expanding the money supply through their purchases of mortgage securities. These others were right, and the Fed finally conceded as much around the time they stopped publishing M3, which was showing the explosion in growth in monetary assets coming from the housing bubble. So these arguments do matter, but I can’t say what tjfxh and Ian Welsh will resolve between themselves.

    Monetary policy may prove to be a better policing mechanism for pay than anything else. The Fed could have avoided many of our problems if it had addressed debt bubbles as they were building, starting with the disaster, and then the housing bubble. If financing for these bubbles had been harder to find and more expensive, the bubbles could have been averted or punctured earlier. This would have made the pay problem moot.

    Here too, we have to express some skepticism. The Fed is watching benignly while yet another bubble is being created – this one in federal debt. The Fed is even abetting the process by buying Treasuries – monetizing the debt in other words. So it may be too much to hope for and we will just have to let the market runs its course, which may have already happened. Once the hedge fund industry and the leveraged buyout industry die off due to lack of leverage/credit, the pay problem at the banks will go away because bankers will have no jobs to go to if their own bonuses are cut back by the government.

  • The explanation is fairly simple. The Fed is offering close to zero percent interest on short term money. While this is wonderful for people who can borrow at that rate, it is miserable for investors holding on to CDs, Treasuries, etc. Consequently, these investors are starved for a higher yield, and they are searching around for riskier investments.

    The stock market is a natural beneficiary, especially in a rising market because things become self-fulfilling: buy stocks now because they are going up and the capital gains will be far better than putting your money into a zero percent deposit. There are also a lot of stocks offering dividends of 1% or more, which makes stocks doubly attractive in a rising market.

    There is an economic argument floating around about the sinking dollar and rising gold: the Fed has put so much money into the economy that sooner or later inflation will become a real problem. You’d better get out of the dollar and into something safe. The problem with this argument is that you would also want to get out of stocks, as people did in the 1970s during the last great inflation, and this is not happening.

    I prefer to think that economically, in times like these where the Fed and other central banks are reflating like crazy, assets appreciate and even reach bubble status. Gold, commodities, stocks, housing – they all are going up, just like they all did from 2002-2007 during the housing bubble. The dollar sinks as a consequence. When a credit crisis hits and everyone gets scared of losing their money in a failing bank, everything reverses. Assets go down, the dollar goes up as a safe haven currency since people use it to buy Treasuries. This to me is the best explanation of the relationship between assets and money at the moment.

  • for your help on this. TJ has added a comment there about your post here. I will follow the discussion between tj and Ian and try to increase my understanding. It seems that the rapidly approaching cliff is almost here. Do you agree?

  • The Canadian Government is now the largest sub-prime lender in the world.

    Ian Welsh said he had no clue this was the case. He said, “Wow, I had no idea. Fucking idiots. The Canadian government cannot afford any significant defaults on that amount of mortgages. 500 billion! That’s the equivalent of 5 trillion in the US, but we don’t have nearly the credit capacity the US has nor can we just print money. Even a 5% default rate would be disastrous, a 10% rate catastrophic. Good God. May Harper burn in hell.”

    Our own cliff rapidly approaches…

  • Even back in the 1960s when I was in college, philosophy departments were dominated by such technical pursuits as formal logic and linguistics. Whatever the flaws in Plato’s dialogues (long since banished as “serious” philosophy), at least he institutionalized philosophy as the proper forum for reflection and discussion about reality and ethics. Today we need that level of discourse desperately. Instead, we’re still living in the shadow of Sir Francis Bacon, who, while leaving us with useful empirical methodology, also left us with the credo that “knowledge (as opposed to wisdom) is power.” And part of the legacy of this view is our higher education system, all too much of which consists of training (i.e. accumulation of knowledge) rather than helping students become more critical thinkers.

  • In remarkably forceful comments Monday, Mr. Carney suggested bankers in the United States and Europe are suffering from hubris, have lost sight of their proper role in the economy, and can’t be trusted to operate in the best interests of the financial system.

    “The financial system must transition from its self-appointed role as the apex of economic activity to once again be the servant of the real economy,” Mr. Carney said in a speech in Montreal. “Stronger institutions and a system that can withstand failure are necessary conditions. But full realization of this objective also requires a change of attitude. More


    Tolerating prostitution is tolerating abuse and torture of women and children.

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