Whyte is wrong to think that Brown is wrong

Writing in Friday’s FT, Jamie Whyte argues that Gordon Brown is wrong to think that regulating bankers’ bonuses to stop the culture of short-term thinking will avoid future financial crises.  He writes:

[I]magine you are the manager of a lottery company. Your job is similar to a banker’s. You sell tickets (make loans) that have a certain probability of winning a prize (of defaulting). To ensure long-run profits, you must set a price for the tickets (charge a rate of interest) that is sufficient to pay out the lottery winnings (cover the cost of defaulting borrowers).

But suppose you were a greedy lottery company manager, concerned more with your own bonus than with your shareholders’ interests. Here is a trick you might play. Offer jackpots, ticket odds and ticket prices that in effect give your customers money. For example, offer $1 tickets with a one-in-5m chance of winning a $10m prize. A one-in-5m chance of winning $10m is worth $2 . So each ticket represents a gift of $1 to its purchaser.

With such an attractive “customer value proposition” you would leave your competitors for dead. And if you limited ticket sales to, say, 1m a year, the chances are no one would win the prize. In most years you will earn $1m in ticket sales and pay nothing in prizes. When someone finally wins the $10m prize, and your company collapses, that will be a problem for shareholders and creditors; you will probably have pocketed a few nice bonuses already.

To prevent such wickedness, Mr Brown may insist that lottery managers be paid bonuses on the basis of long-term profits: five years’, let us say. No problem: simply set the prize at $100m and the chance of winning at one in 50m. Then you will be unlucky if anyone wins in a five-year period, and you can be confident of walking away with a fat bonus.

This is why, even if Mr Brown were right that short-term bonus plans caused the financial crisis, his proposed remedy would not help. Whatever time frame he mandates, it will always be too short. For, like lottery managers, bank managers can manipulate the “risk profile” of the bank so that large losses, although inevitable in the long run, are unlikely during the mandated period.

I like Mr. Whyte’s analogy, but as far as I can see, there are three problems in his logic.  For the sake of some numbers to talk about, I’ll consider the idea of a five-year delay in high-end bankers having access to their bonuses.

First, he’s missing the fact that for his lottery company to offer a prize of $100 million, it’s going to need some backers with much deeper pockets than if his prize is only $10 million.  Whyte quite correctly points out that risk has been mispriced, but provided that it’s got some price, scaling up without a larger customer pool (the equivalent of increasing the leverage of your bank) must come with extra costs.  Even if the wholesale market is willing to stand behind you, one option is to increase the duration until the size needed to outflank it would require bank mergers that would run foul of competition law.

Second, a key feature long-term bonuses is that they accumulate.   If bonuses are awarded annually but placed into escrow for five years, then even if the bad event doesn’t happen until year 10, there will be five years of bonuses available for claw-back.  All the bankers are currently giving up one year of bonuses.  By putting bonuses to one side, we magnify the value at risk faced by the bankers themselves.

Third, we need to recognise that nobdy lives forever, and while one year might not be so long when measured against a career, five years is a serious block of time.  The reputational effects of any failure would be increased and, I hope, institutional memory would be improved.

As I say, I agree that a mispricing of risk lies at the heart of the credit crisis.  I simply disagree with Mr. Whyte on why it occured.  I’m not sure why he thinks it occured, but I think that part of the cause is the short-term nature of bank incentives.

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