I'll probably get stoned for this post. But somebody has to tell the truth to the great unwashed American public. You see, it's not that the great unwashed American public can't afford hot water, but rather some politicians would rather keep them unwashed. It makes their lives so much easier. Dealing with truth is hard.
Bonus, as applied to the financial sector, is a gross misnomer. It has nothing to do with your performance or the firm's. It's strictly related to how strongly your boss wants to keep you around for awhile, which may range from a month to as long as a year. Therefore, "retention payment" is a much more accurate term, despite the spin-doctor overtone after AIG.
OK, you say, give'em nothing and see where they're gonna go!
Plenty of places to go, in fact -- how about another bank?
Wall Street, or financial service sector in much of the developed world in general, has grown very bloated through rapid expansion that had lasted for decades when the crisis started. Most financial service firms have accumulated a lot of, well, less-than-qualified and less-than-essential staff, at all levels and in every department. Yes, most have gone through countless rounds of lay-off since 07. But lay-offs are inherently arbitrary and prone to non-meritocratic factors such as personal politics. It's not the most reliable or fair selection mechanism. In fact, I personally know a few absolutely top-tier people who got laid off over the past year, or indeed all the years. In comparison, worker mobility is much more consistently fair and efficient, even though the hiring process is far from perfect.
The world still needs financial services, in fact more so than ever -- just the "right kind". There're still a lot of Wall Street businesses making money, some quite handsomely and honestly. As such, there's still demand for talent, experience, relationship, and professional devotion. Even winding down a portfolio requires all these qualities; otherwise you end up amplifying the disaster (yes, this is what happened at AIG last quarter, despite the "bonus", but this is a general view, not a defense for any particular company or instance). It's a highly specialized field with a limited supply of well-qualified labor.
I've long argued here that the government should let bad banks fail, let the market force select surviving banks and employees. We would be back in a short time with functional market, effective corporate governance model, sensible compensation structure, and strong and nimble banks. Government could've paid 10 times the amount of "bonus" to every former Wall Street employee and still saved 99.9% of the taxpayers' money that they've wasted and funneled through various bailouts so far.
The amount of "bonus" is so infinitesimally inconsequential in this mess, compared to the real issues such as compensation structure, corporate governance, procyclic systemic risk, and regulatory oversight as well as enforcement. Yet this is the singular focus of the bill passed by the House yesterday. Don't they, paid by taxpayers' money no less, have better things to do?
Apparently not. Here's a quote from a CQPolitics report:
"You disgust us," (House Ways and Means member Earl Pomeroy , D-N.D.) said, “By any measure, you are disgraced professional losers. And, by the way, give us our money back.”
Do political grandstanding and popularist democracy get any cheaper and more pathetic than this?
This bill is so wrong in so many ways it's unquestionably the height of bad legislation.
1. What about consultants working at banks? There's a natural leveling mechanism in compensation between consultants and employees. Now employees get punished, in addition to their past stock options and restricted stocks and 401k's being wiped out, but her consultant colleague walks away scratch free?
2. What about Morgan Stanley who paid their "bonus" before year-end?
3. If Paulson forced TARP on the CEOs mafia style, or even if the CEOs asked for it, why should the employees doing the actual work get punished because of the decision they never had even the slightest possibility of influence in?
4. What about the European banks lucky enough to escape Paulson's mandatory bailout? Is the House trying to push top talents out of US banks?
5. If anything even remotely ressembling this bill passes the Senate and the Supreme Court, the damage to US as a country, an investment and business destiny, a global leader would be broad, permanent, and irreversible. I don't believe it will. But I'm afraid some damage has already been done.
This goes to show that undue government mettling in private business can be more damaging than the worst nightmare of free-market advocates.
No, dear Congress, you disgust me. It was you who sold out to lobbyists and dismantled Glass-Steagall. It was you who set up the fundamentally flawed, schizophrenic GSEs. It was you who set up the greatest Ponzi schemes in human history called Social Security, Medicare and guaranteed pension. It was you who sit idly by throughout the bubble years without exercising your oversight power. It was you who bankrupted American public. You're as guilty in negligence and failing your fudicial duty as the lying Wall Stret CEOs and rogue traders. And now you're feigning outrage, putting up cheap political show after cheap political show of bellowing inconsequential, irrelevant, ignorant questions down on the CEOs?
It's time for the banks to return taxpayers' money and go bankrupt if they must. This political show has lost its purpose. It's become its own purpose and thus a distraction. Let's work on finding the real solutions.