Feb 15

In the wake of all this public anger over bankers’ salaries, and within weeks of taking office, Barack Obama is proposing “common sense” executive pay guidelines—at least in companies receiving government money. These measures call for executive salaries not to exceed $500,000; any further compensation could only be in the form of stocks, which can’t be sold until the government is paid back. No doubt this makes us feel better to some extent, but the question is, will it work?

I think not, and here’s why: if we were designing the stock market from scratch and offering people $500,000 a year plus stock incentives, I’m sure we would get lots of qualified people who would kill for this job, and not only for the salary but also as an important civil service to maintain the financial system on which we depend. But this is if we started from scratch, which we are most assuredly not. Instead we’re dealing with existing bankers who are accustomed to millions a year plus millions in stock options. These people have made up, over the years, a multitude of reasons why this is the least that they deserve for their efforts and skills (how many people can admit to being paid much more than they’re worth?). This is a problem of relativity. To these bankers, in view of their “normal” pay, it looks like an offensive and irresponsible offer. My guess is that they will not accept these conditions, or if they do, they’ll find other tricks to pay themselves what they think are “right” and fair wages, which is what they earned heretofore.

What would I have done if I’d been the financial czar in this situation? I would try to turn over a new leaf; incentivize the creation of new banks with a new pay structure; promote the idea that bankers are not greedy bastards but have a crucial social responsibility so that a whole new generation would take this approach and want these positions. The “old bankers” who feel they needed millions of dollars to do their jobs well could try and compete in this new market, but we’d see who actually wanted to bank with them when the alternative is a new bank with more idealistic underpinnings and a better, more realistic, and more transparent, salary structure.