Thursday, November 20, 2008


I've said before that the key problem that led to the crisis was agency. Incentives for financial decision makers encouraged risk taking. An article in today's Wall Street Journal provides some evidence, in the form of earnings of top executives in finance and home-building over the last five years. A key finding:
Fifteen corporate chieftains of large home-building and financial-services firms each reaped more than $100 million in cash compensation and proceeds from stock sales during the past five years, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. Four of those executives, including the heads of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Bear Stearns Cos., ran companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection or seen their share prices fall more than 90% from their peak.
Of course such earning filtered all the way through the financial system. Bonuses and earnings were high at investment banks because the risk taking led to high current earnings, and because insufficient attention was paid to the associated risks that the decisions that produced those earnings implied.

The key point is that these people were obviously not stupid, and the crisis is not due to stupidity, but rather to a system that rewards current performance without attention to risk. To paraphrase James Carville, "it was the incentive system stupid."

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