Monday, 30 January 2012

Top salaries

There have been two main arguments advanced by those who support the payment of massive bonuses to bankers.  The first is that such bonuses represent payment for results, and the second is that the banks are in competition with each other for their top management and therefore have to pay competitive packages.
Those arguments are, however, based on two assumptions.  Those assumptions are self-evidently true to those making them; but I’m not convinced that they stand up to more objective scrutiny.  The first assumption is that the actions of the individuals concerned make such a significant difference to the performance of the organisation as a whole that it is essential to retain them, and the second is that there is a vanishingly small pool of talented people who can undertake such roles.
The question about the extent to which the performance of an organisation is affected by the performance of an individual is far from straightforward.  It’s probably true that poor decisions by individuals can wreck an organisation – and the banking industry has seen the effects of that probably more than any other sector.  It’s far less obvious that the actions of top management can make an organisation succeed. 
That doesn’t stop them claiming the credit for success when it happens – but there’s often a huge amount of luck.  They just happen to be in the right place at the right time.  And if things go wrong, there’s usually someone else to blame.  So when things are going badly it’s down to the problems of the Eurozone; when they are going well it’s due to the brilliance of the top bankers.  (And it’s hard for politicians to criticise bankers for pulling this trick when they do it so often themselves.)
Competent management teams at banks will generally do better than incompetent ones, but I suspect that a huge proportion of the factors which affect overall success will always be outside their control.  If that’s true, then the pool of people who could manage a bank competently is much larger than we are led to believe.  And if that pool is much larger, then the need to compete by paying huge salaries is correspondingly reduced.
To look at things another way, do we really believe that we couldn’t find competent people to run our banks at salaries very much lower than those being paid currently?  After all, it’s not so very long ago that the banks were indeed run by people whose salaries, in both absolute and comparative terms, were very much lower than today.  And the banks were, I recall, rather more successful too.


Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

Cytuno'n llwyr ar bob pwynt, John.

Spirit of BME said...

There is a lot in this post I agree with, but nothing is simple in high finance.
Markets make successful banks or anything else, what the leadership brings is marginal but at times totally critical at certain market phases. These high paid bods make a difference when the market is right and their power networks get them to the front of the market change.
In the bust scenario we are in these guys for the first time in many a year are having to earn their corn, the right price for their services is the value you place on their management and network skills.

Anonymous said...

Has everyone forgot about civil service bonuses?