Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Liquidity vs. Excessive Compensation


It's safe to say this guy's in the financial industry. After an interesting analysis of how banking crises in Japan and Korea turned out, he comments,
Killing Detroit whilst bailing out fat-cat bankers is politically unpopular. If you want to see a justifiably upset victim have a look at this letter from a Dodge dealer. I don’t think the political sentiment in the letter is accurate – but it is perfectly understandable.

Likewise there is no end of complaint about bailing out banks so they can continue to pay million dollar bonuses – and the political sentiment in those complaints is accurate and entirely understandable.
Hempton, I suspect deliberately, conflates two entirely separate issues: saving the banks, and bankrolling excessive compensation with taxpayer money. I've seen plenty of grumbling about the auto industry bailout, no small amount of it focused on claims (usually false) about how much UAW workers make.

I personally don't believe Hempton missed that, or the calls for slashing worker compensation, associated not just with the effort to keep GM and Chrysler out of bankruptcy but also in relation to what "must" happen for viable companies to emerge from bankruptcy. It would have been very possible for the Bush or Obama Administrations to toss a few extra billion at the auto industry with the instruction that worker wages and bonuses were to be maintained, but you would have seen outrage at least as pronounced as that directed at the absurdity of handing out six and seven figure "retention bonuses" to the bankers who ruined their companies, or sat idly by while the guy at the next desk ruined their companies.

The outrage was not directed at financial industry salaries, which are quite high to begin with, and was certainly not directed at the bailout itself. The outrage was over bonuses that have absolutely no relation to either employee performance or to corporate profits, paid for with taxpayer money (or, if you think it's a more charitable description, deficit spending to be paid off by future taxpayers).

Just as it would have been possible (and wrong) to bail out GM and Chrysler in a way that maintained the status quo, including worker and executive compensation, at the cost of additional billions of taxpayer money, it was wrong to bail out the financial industry in a way that maintains the status quo, including compensation that's plainly excessive in the light that these institutions would be alongside Lehman Brothers, GM and Chrysler in bankruptcy but for a massive bailout. The skimming of profits to provide extraordinary compensation for ordinary work has become the norm in the executive suites of corporate America, and through the financial industry. The problem isn't that people were outraged by the siphoning of bailout funds to provide massive bonuses to financial industry employees and executives - the problem is that it happened anyway.

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