It was all those greedy bankers, wasn't it?


It's the cry of the day: the financial system was brought to its knees by the greed of he bankers! This leads to the simple thought that if we stop the bankers from being able to be greedy then we'll have solved the problem.

The problem with this simple thought is, well, apart from the fact that it is simple minded, is that there appears to be no empirical evidence whatsoever that it is in fact true. Jeffrey Friedman pointed this out last week. Given that Richard Fulds of Lehman lost a billion dollars (yes, $1,000,000,000) when the firm went belly up it's difficult to accuse him of risking the shareholders' gelt for his own gain by knowingly taking excessive risk. In fact, the research shows that those banks where the senior executives held more stock did worse than those where they held less.

Further, about those toxic assets: the banks were holding the higher rated (and thus less profitable) AAA tranches rather than the AA ones. They were deliberately, at least as far as they understood matters, eschewing both risk and potential profit.

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.

If that is true (and no one has as yet offered any proof that it isn't: nothing beyond the "well, everyone knows, don't they?" level at least) then the concentration upon bankers' pay and bonuses is simply Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine" as it usually works rather than as she described it. A crisis is when those who would extend State power extend it: when the politicians gather more power to themselves rather than dispersing it to you and I in the markets.

But much more importantly, if that is true then changing the mode of bankers' remuneration will not reduce the risk of it all happening again for it was not the cause this time around. That's much more dangerous than any shortfall at a Chelsea Bentley dealership: the thought that by misidentifying the causes of the problem we assuage populist anger than actually solving the problem itself.

Perhaps instead of the bankers' pay it was indeed cock-eyed regulation? Shouldn't it be more important to fix that, perhaps the real cause of the problem, than please the baying mob?