Just now, it is a struggle to keep a straight face when you read the words “talent” and “Wall Street” in the same sentence. And yet, precisely because it is in a mess, the financial system will need decent managers if it is to return to the health that benefits the rest of the economy. The sort of sums that would satisfy Congress as a cap may be far above the incomes of average Americans, but there is no surer way of driving finance offshore or into hedge funds where it is beyond the gaze of regulators. Besides, if ever there was a time when pay in banking and broking is likely to be depressed by the market, it is now. The bubble did not only inflate asset prices, it also inflated pay. Now the bubble has burst and hundreds of thousands of finance professionals want work.
American politicians have a lamentable record of intervening in setting executive pay. In the early years of the Clinton administration, Congress imposed a salary cap of $1m, beyond which firms faced a tax penalty. Pay rose, as one set of executives, beneath the cap, realised that they were “underpaid” and another set gained from an outpouring of creativity, as consultants invented myriad option schemes, perks and pension benefits to get around the limit. This only made it harder for shareholders to know who was getting what.
If the foolishness of Congress setting corporate pay levels is an old lesson, the financial crisis is teaching some new ones to shareholders. First, forget the received wisdom that paying people in large amounts of shares in their own firm ensures they take sensible value-maximising decisions. In the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, the management did not just take reckless gambles with other people’s money. Dick Fuld and Jimmy Cayne took reckless gambles with their own-and still they failed to do the right things and ended up losing most of their fortunes. Outside shareholders should remember that loading up the people at the top with shares can be an aid to corporate governance, but not a substitute for it.