Important work by cobrapost that illuminates high-powered incentives

The investigative journalism by cobrapost, their videos, and Monika Halan in Mint add up to an important story.

Most of us have enormous respect for the achievements of Axis Bank, HDFC Bank and ICICI Bank. But as Monika emphasises, there are also genuine problems there. We saw it first with the hard-driving mis-selling in recent years, particularly with ULIPs, and now we see it here, with staffpersons supporting illegal activities.

Ordinarily, a media outlet in India bringing such information out has to worry about brazen strong-arm tactics being deployed against them, such as filing of criminal cases. In this case, luckily, there is a certain decency about these three organisations which precludes such concerns. It is ironic that the Indian media vigorously reports on the misdeeds of civilised people, and tends to be silent about uncivilised people.

In India, most of us are reverential about the power of incentives. To make people work, we think, you have to have high powered incentives. We revere incentive packages, stock options, stock grants, which whip the staffperson into a frenzy of hard work.

Economists led this charge, starting with Jensen and Murphy, 1990. The notion that high powered incentives are a good thing came out of academia and went into the real world. But increasingly, it has become clear that there are problems. By 2004, Jensen and Murphy themselves were saying that we should be more circumspect about using high powered incentives.

A person facing high powered incentives tends to focus on one thing. There is an excessive pursuit of that one thing, and all other considerations tend to evaporate. Similarly, when there are quantitative goals alongside qualitative goals, high-powered incentives will generate a focus on quantitative goals and tend to crowd out qualitative goals. Employees of a bank that are given powerful incentives to hit targets for deposit growth (sacked if you don’t, given a 100% bonus if you do) are more likely to try to pull in that deposit growth by hook or by crook. If the internal controls of an organisation are weak, then employees are likely to achieve their targets by dubious means.

For all of us in India, coming from a backdrop of socialism and State, it is natural to have extreme hostility to the absence of incentive for a civil servant to do his job. We have seen how private organisations have triumphed by giving employees more incentive. But it’s easy for us to overdo this message. In many situations, I feel it’s better to go from no incentive to low-powered incentives, but not all the way to high powered incentives.

These issues are widely discussed in the global debate. When we transplant these ideas into India, a big difference lies in the weak governance environment. Super-charged employees in private firms seem to be willing to break laws in their pursuit of profit. Since CEOs weigh the costs and benefits of unethical behaviour, we may argue that when, in a weak governance environment, the expected punishment is small, an increase in the gains from unethical behaviour (through high-powered incentives) results in reduced fairplay.

This suggests two things. First, HR managers needs to be more sophisticated in how the objectives of an employee are defined. If we could be more nuanced in clarifying what the employee is to maximise, this could yield better results. The second issue is about internal controls. When internal controls are strong, they become a non-negotiable constraint within which growing sales or profit has to be done. Unfortunately, once the top managers of an organisation are really hard-driving, chasing growth and profitability, these kinds of niceties (of both kinds) tend to fall by the wayside.

One of the most important mechanisms through which we get high powered incentives is : an entrepreneur who manages a company with family members, and who has dominant shareholding. The one area where this gets us into the most trouble is: Finance. A series of papers that have analysed the Great Recession have found that financial firms where CEOs had more high powered incentives got into more trouble. I am a great advocate of less public sector and more private sector in finance, but we have to be cautious about high powered incentives e.g. those that go with dominant entrepreneurs in a family business.

A prominent example of this debate has been `financial market infrastructure institutions’ (FMIIs), a category that comprises organisations like exchanges, depositories, clearing corporations, all of which produce public goods for the financial system. In all these areas, the organisation is unique in that, alongside the goal of maximising profit, there is a regulatory function. This tiny handful of firms is unique, when compared with essentially any other part of capitalism, in that some government functions of regulation and supervision are placed in private, profit-maximising hands. High powered incentives to produce profit or valuation will lead to a dilution or worse of regulatory and supervisory functions. If profit-seeking owners/managers of these organisations under-emphasise or abuse the regulatory and supervisory functions in the quest for profit, this has far-ranging externalities. Failures of regulation and supervision at exchanges have given macroeconomic crises in India in 1992 and 2001. Hence, even though the revenues and profits of these firms is truly tiny on the scale of the economy, this conflict of interest is an important issue for policy makers.

Similarly, there has been a vigorous debate about entry by private banks. As a working approximation, we have to assume that RBI supervision is less than perfect. In this case, I feel that we should be quite circumspect about banks led by entrepreneurs.
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