Friday, April 23, 2010

James Grant: The best financial reform? Let the bankers fail

Must read for anyone interested in banking and incentives.

The trouble with Wall Street isn't that too many bankers get rich in the booms. The trouble, rather, is that too few get poor -- really, suitably poor -- in the busts. To the titans of finance go the upside. To we, the people, nowadays, goes the downside. How much better it would be if the bankers took the losses just as they do the profits.

Happily, there's a ready-made and time-tested solution. Let the senior financiers keep their salaries and bonuses, and let them do with their banks what they will. If, however, their bank fails, let the bankers themselves fail. Let the value of their houses, cars, yachts, paintings, etc. be assigned to the firm's creditors.

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No surprise, then, the perversity of Wall Street's incentives. For rolling the dice, the payoff is potentially immense. For failure, the personal cost -- while regrettable -- is manageable. Senior executives at Lehman Brothers, Citi, AIG and Merrill Lynch, among other stricken institutions, did indeed lose their savings. What they did not necessarily lose is the rest of their net worth. In Brazil -- which learned a thing or two about frenzied finance during its many bouts with hyperinflation -- bank directors, senior bank officers and controlling bank stockholders know that they are personally responsible for the solvency of the institution with which they are associated. Let it fail, and their net worths are frozen for the duration of often-lengthy court proceedings. If worse comes to worse, the responsible and accountable parties can lose their all.

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