Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Time for Wall Street to Pay

(Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post) As a responsible business columnist for a respected newspaper, I know how I'm supposed to respond when people say that government shouldn't try to stabilize the banking system or bail out the bond insurers or put a floor under the housing market.

"Of course we don't want to protect investors or lenders or borrowers from the consequences of their own bad judgments," I'm supposed to say. "But it's probably not a good idea for government to let markets spin out of control in a way that triggers a nasty recession and causes lots of innocent people to lose their jobs, their savings or their companies."

I'd be lying if I didn't admit there's part of me that takes some perverse satisfaction from the ever-widening crisis that has engulfed Wall Street, humbling its most powerful institutions and exposing its hypocrisy and corruption.

I don't ask you to join in this schadenfreude, or even excuse it, so much as understand it. In a way, the feeling has been building since the days of Michael Milken and the junk bond craze.

Looking back, few would doubt that high-yield bonds helped to democratize corporate finance and began to shift power from banks to capital markets as the primary intermediary between savers and borrowers. Through the magic of the leveraged buyout, these junk bonds helped to make companies more responsive to shareholders and laid the foundation for the growth of private equity.

Over the ensuing two decades, Wall Street has been brilliant at dreaming up other financial innovations that picked up where junk bonds left off. These included complex futures and derivatives contracts; loan syndication; securitization; credit default swaps; off-balance-sheet vehicles; collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs; and blank-check initial public offerings.

As the industry and its cheerleaders constantly remind us, these innovations have helped to lower the cost of capital and make the business sector more efficient and globally competitive. But what we are now discovering -- or perhaps rediscovering -- are all the ways in which all this glorious financial innovation has weakened the economy and the society it serves.

For starters, these innovations have helped to create a cycle of financial booms and busts that have a tendency to spill over into the real economy, contributing to a heightened sense of insecurity.

They have shortened the time horizons of investors and corporate executives, who have responded by under-investing in research and the development of human capital.

They have contributed significantly to massive misallocation of capital to real estate, unproven technologies and unproductive financial manipulation.

They have made it easy and seemingly painless for businesses, households and even countries to take on dangerous levels of debt.

They have given traders a greater ability to secretly manipulate markets.

They have given corporations clever new tools to hide risks, liabilities and losses from investors.

And by giving banks the tools to circumvent reserve requirements and make more loans with less capital, they have enormously increased the leverage in the financial system and with it the risk of a financial meltdown.

But far and away the greatest damage from all this financial wizardry is the obscene levels of compensation it has generated for a select group of Wall Street executives and money managers.

For when you look over the long term, at the good periods and the bad, it is obvious that the pay collected by these masters of the universe has been grossly excessive -- out of line with the personal financial risk they have taken, out of line with their skills relative to the next-best performers and certainly out of line with the returns earned by investors.

There are lots of reasons for this: lack of price competition, herd behavior by investors, an "arms race" among firms to attract a handful of supposed superstars. But probably the biggest reason is that the huge bonuses paid in the good years are never required to be paid back in the bad years, creating an asymmetric compensation system that encourages excessive leverage and risk-taking.

Wall Street's hypocrisy on this topic is nothing less than breathtaking. When times are good, its champions will claim that their brilliance and hard work account for the spectacular returns. But when markets turn and investors lose their shirts, these same brilliant managers are sent off with golden parachutes and invariably scooped up by rival firms that are only too willing to chalk up their mistakes to bad luck.

It would be bad enough if the consequences of this excessive pay were confined to Wall Street. Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way. For the prospect of earning untold wealth also has attracted an enormous amount of young talent that could have been more productively used in science, engineering, medicine, teaching, public service and businesses that generate genuine long-term value.

Is it not fair to ask whether the United States can remain the world's most prosperous and innovative economy when half of the seniors at the most prestigious colleges and universities now aspire to become "i-bankers" at Goldman Sachs?

So I hope you'll forgive me, dear readers, when I say that the best thing that could happen to our economy is for a dozen high-profile hedge funds to collapse; for investment banking to enter a long, deep freeze; for a major bank to fail; and for the price of a typical Park Avenue duplex to fall by 30 percent. For only then might we finally stop genuflecting before the altar of unregulated financial markets and insist that Wall Street serve the interest of Main Street, rather than the other way around.

Yes, I know it's harsh and vengeful solution, and there will be lots of collateral damage. But as I look out over the destruction sweeping across the financial sector, I just can't silence the small voice in my head that keeps repeating that old '60s expression, "Burn, baby, burn."

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