As we come to the beginning of the end of the financial crisis, the calls for the blood of bankers have abated. There is universal agreement that the system overall was flawed, and it is unfair to burden a particular group with the full responsibility of our current sorry state.
The time has come to dispassionately step back and ask the tough question. It may or not be unfair, but is it incorrect?
Consider first the arguments for those who claim that the Bankers have suffered enough.
There was a sense of outrage that that the Bankers had not paid for their sins. This is simply not true. As a percentage of their wealth, Bankers have lost more than everyone else combined. Fully 40% of Lehman stock was held by its employees. When that stock was worth $85, the company was worth around the same, in billions of dollars. Every person in Wall Street has the right to claim that they could not foresee the collapse. The original argument was that it took mala fide intent, or stupidity to not have seen the risk. It turns out that stupidity was the right answer, since every idiot on Wall Street was in fact heavily invested in – you guessed it, Wall Street.
Which brings us nicely to point 2. The idiots could not be held responsible, since there was not deliberate fraud. There is today only a perplexing cloud of sub moronic decisions. How, is everyone asking, could we not have foreseen this ? Naturally, we forgive ourselves, and having done that, find it easy to extend the forgiveness to Wall Street. They could hardly be held responsible for the wrong decisions. After all, we made them too!
Finally, we all would like to look at who else we could hold responsible. There is a popular cry that Rating agencies should have done more, or that the entire process of Ratings is intrinsically flawed. Regulatory agencies are also very popular invitees to the whip-them-all parties. Finally, what about the consumer, the buyer of gas guzzling Hummers, the takers of sub-prime loans to purchase houses three sizes too big? Surely, some of the pie, humble or otherwise, belongs to him as well.
These arguments are not unjust, but unfortunately they miss the point. This is not a bad thing – it shows our intrinsic humanity. It takes a special kind of cruelty to turn away from justice for the past and coldly consider what is best for our future. But it must be done. “The greatest good of the largest number” is a disgusting motto, but we it does help in analysing the issues.
I will get to the inconvenient truths, but first let me speculate about why the Bankers lost so much money.
<nasty on>The reason that the Bankers lost so much of their personal money was that they were all overpaid, and behaved exactly like people do when they come into money that they know they haven’t earned. They throw it into the riskiest earnings streams that they can find. That comforts them, because if they lose the money, well then, they did not do such a bad thing after all, since they didn’t take the money home with them. And if they win, well then, this time the money was made by them, so that feels good as well! <nasty off>
Well, that was nasty, but my personal belief in this comes from the incidence of Wall Street Bankers in Las Vegas during the boom years. It really doesn’t take too much intelligence to know that you are playing against the house, so why do such highly educated and well paid people – which probably means that they are intelligent – keep playing these games?
To come to somewhat more factual matters, the arguments for letting Ken Lewis and all the other CEOs “pursue other interests” are as follows.
The current incumbents cannot effect the change we need. It is sad but true that it is only after Obama won the presidency has it become acceptable to admit that it was a mistake to give Bush carte-blanche in Iraq. Only Senator Edwards had the courage to admit that he made a mistake, and in retrospect, it may be because it was one of his smaller ones The current lot will go right back to making original sin #1, forcing really intelligent people to think like idiots because of misguided compensation structures.
Which bring us to point #2. While it is probably correct to absolve the CEOs of fraud, it would be incorrect to absolve them of stupidity. One has to assume that they have blundered, and it would not be right to not hold them accountable for their blunders. In this case, by kicking them out.
The last and final point is simply a rebuttal of the desire to make major changes to the infrastructure, or to the nature of human beings at large. It may or not be feasible to make major changes to the infrastructure and social polity within which Wall Street operates. It is simply not the better answer. We don’t need change around Wall Street, we need it in Wall Street. The best way to effect that change is change the players, not the environment within which Wall Street operates.
The last point is the coldest of them all, because it makes no bones about asking Ken Lewis to lose his job so that we can get on with our lives without having to wait 10 years for a new world order to come into place. But it is also the most important. It is simply the most practical decision to get a new broom to sweep clean.