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A month ago, I came out strongly against the idea of a government limit on bonuses for investment bankers. Based on the reaction to the article, most readers seemed to believe I was either on the take from the North American Investment Banking Union (an organization I just made up), or heavily intoxicated while writing the article.
I hate to burst any bubbles, but neither is true. In fact, despite the continued stream of bad news from the financial sector, I continue to staunchly oppose heavy-handed, across-the-board government restrictions on bonuses. Perhaps even fewer people will agree with me now than in my first go-round, but before you ready the guillotine, take a second to consider that I may not be as crazy as you think.
We're not talking philosophy of value here
One stumbling block that we're going to have from the outset of this discussion is the amount of money that customers pay for the services that investment banks provide. Whether for stock trading, money management, or M&A advisory services, clients pay these banks through the nose.
But are the services worth it? Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) , for example, recently gobbled up its competitor Wyeth; in the process, the two sides spent a couple of hundred million dollars on advisory services from a handful of banks, including Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , and Evercore (NYSE: EVR ) . Or consider the fact that investment banks' captive hedge funds take massive fees that make mutual funds look like nonprofits.
Are these banks creating enough real value through these activities to substantiate such massive fees? That is absolutely a valid question, but one that I'll leave for another venue. The bottom line is that at least as of now, clients are willing to pay those fees, and there are people at the investment banks bringing them in.
Chasing away the talent
There seems to be a lot of furor over the idea that there are people at the investment banks still scoring, and scoring big. But when we break apart the results at many of the major investment banks, some divisions are still very much carrying their weight.
JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , for instance, reported negative revenue in its investment banking arm in the fourth quarter, but that was driven in large part by a horrendous showing from the fixed-income-markets segment. Meanwhile, investment banking fees for advisory services and capital raising in the fourth quarter still clocked in at $1.4 billion. Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) told a similar story; though the firm reported a $2.1 billion net loss for the fourth quarter, investment banking fees topped $1 billion, and equity trading revenue was $2.6 billion.
There are some very good reasons for bankers to want to stay with a big firm like Goldman or Morgan -- less personal risk and a good brand name, just to name a couple. But show me a principal strategies trader who brings in tens -- if not hundreds -- of millions of dollars to the firm, and tell me that his or her bonus is capped at $500,000, and I'll show you a principal strategies trader who's going to flip you off and start his or her own hedge fund.
Uncle Sam as a smart owner
The government is now a stakeholder in a great many financial institutions, and we as the American people have good reason to be hopping mad that it came to this. However, rules such as these pay caps -- which, let's face it, are less motivated by solid business sense than by our conviction that these guys are overpaid jerks -- just aren't a good idea.
But that doesn't mean that Uncle Sam, who now owns pretty significant stakes in some of these firms, has to sit on his thumbs. With an economy in disarray, and an investment banking industry in even worse shape, now is the time to cut the fat in a big way. Investment bankers should not be million-dollar seatwarmers, no matter where their MBA degrees originate.
While I have a big problem with putting an across-the-board limit on pay, I think it'd be a great idea to make sure that only the folks who are actually performing get the big bucks. I'm fine with ticking off substandard or non-performing bankers, or traders who aren't cutting it. At the same time, it'd be great to make sure people aren't getting paid for short-term results that could come back to bite the bank. Hedge fund managers are subject to clawbacks when their fund loses money. There seems little reason why a bond trader whose trades go sour shouldn't have to cough up some past compensation, too.
At the end of the day, if we don't end up nationalizing and breaking up Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , B of A, or any of the others, then don't we want to keep them competitive? At least that way, we'd get the most out of our investment.
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