Taleb: End Bonuses at Too Big to Fail Banks

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The fact that the New York Times is running as its lead op-ed a piece by Nassim Nicholas Taleb arguing against any bank bonuses points to a hardening sentiment among the elites against the banks. (Related proof is a post by Felix Salmon endorsing principal reductions for stressed but salvageable mortgage borrowers).

I lost all sympathy with the executives and producers of major banks in 2009. Here, after having gotten massive, hugely visible rescues, and continuing support in the way of super low interest rates (a massive transfer from savers), they did not do the right thing, which was to lay low for a couple of years, cut pay, and rebuild their balance sheets. Instead, banks fell all over themselves to repay the TARP simply to escape its think restrictions on executive pay, and Wall Street bonuses in 2009 and 2010 exceeded the 2007 record. Note that former Goldman co-chairmam John Whitehead had taken the unusual step of excoriating Lloyd Blankfein for Goldman’s “outrageous” 2006 pay and argued the firm could afford to lose those who believed they had better opportunities at hedge funds.

As we’ve argued, banks, particularly in this era of extraordinary support (rock bottom interest rates, regulatory forbearance, underpriced insurance schemes) enjoy far more government support than any other industry, including defense contractors. They can’t properly be considered to be private companies. They are utilities and need to be regulated as such. And if they won’t rein in pay levels on their own, it should include restrictions on pay.

Key sections of the Taleb op-ed:

More than three years since the global financial crisis started, financial institutions are still blowing themselves up…it is only a matter of time before private risk-taking leads to another giant bailout like the ones the United States was forced to provide in 2008…

Instead, it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed, should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

Critics like the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators decry the bonus system for its lack of fairness and its contribution to widening inequality. But the greater problem is that it provides an incentive to take risks. The asymmetric nature of the bonus (an incentive for success without a corresponding disincentive for failure) causes hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster. This violates the fundamental rules of capitalism; Adam Smith himself was wary of the effect of limiting liability, a bedrock principle of the modern corporation….

Bonuses are particularly dangerous because they invite bankers to game the system by hiding the risks of rare and hard-to-predict but consequential blow-ups…

Consider that we trust military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses. They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail. For bankers, it is the opposite: a bonus if they make short-term profits and a bailout if they go bust. The question of talent is a red herring: Having worked with both groups, I can tell you that military and security people are not only more careful about safety, but also have far greater technical skill, than bankers…

What would banking look like if bonuses were eliminated? It would not be too different from what it was like when I was a bank intern in the 1980s, before the wave of deregulation that culminated in the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that had separated investment and commercial banking. Before then, bankers and lenders were boring “lifers.” Banking was bland and predictable; the chairman’s income was less than that of today’s junior trader. Investment banks, which paid bonuses and weren’t allowed to lend, were partnerships with skin in the game, not gamblers playing with other people’s money.

Taleb is right, of course. It is too bad that most Americans are allergic to government restrictions on compensation, even when it is amply warranted. Sadly, it will probably take another blow up to change their minds.

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  1. vlade

    I say instead of removing the bonuses, change the nature of SII. Indeed, I’d say change how leveraged companies can work – pass a very simple law, that a leveraged company cannot be limited liability (limited liability is an option society grants to support entrepreneurship. Leveraging is effectively super-leveraging the option at an expense to the society, increasing the incentive for fraud and looting).

    That would kill them as public companies to start with, which would be a good place to start.
    The state would then be allowed to provide any support at all only when the owners were stripped of every single penny. Make the remainder a debt which cannot be discharged in bankruptcy (the same as student loans), and is carried on for three generations.
    I’ll bet you the behaviors would change rapidly.

    Mind you, I see passing a law like this to have about as large chance to be passed as the proverbial snowball….

    1. Another Gordon

      Good idea. I seem to remember (but cannot find a source) that UK bank directors did not have limited liability until 1868.

    2. Dirk77

      Start like this: demand the removal of all limited liability by pointing out that it is essentially welfare (Ha-Joon Chang’s and other’s argument). That will get all libertarians/tea partiers on your side—like the Koch brothers. (While you are at it you can point out that untaxed pollution is welfare too.). At that point you can bargain. Don’t give away anything at the start and you will get what you want at the end.

  2. fresno dan

    I’d ask, why were they bailed out to begin with? At the very least, the people who gave as an excuse that they didn’t see it coming, or don’t know what happened, should have been fired for empircal, demnstrated incompentance.

    If the banks are defacto government agencies now (and how could they not be, with all the free money provided under the auspices of the FED and Treasury) than the people running them should have government salaries. About 175,000$ for Lloyd Blankfein. Maybe if he did a really good job he could get a bonus of 25K…

    1. Eric Titus

      They were bailed out because without a bailout, most major banks would have failed and this might have wrecked the economy.
      There is nothing wrong with “bailouts” in general. However, the bailout we got had few consequences and led to few changes at banks. If we had bailed out the banks and fundamentally changed the banking system, that would be ideal. However, that’s not what happened.

      1. 99 Percenter

        > There is nothing wrong with “bailouts” in general.

        Uhhmm you lost me there – Taleb himself will tell you that “the bus driver crashed, so you gave him a new bus AND a bonus”.

        1. LucyLulu

          Taleb himself will tell you that “the bus driver crashed, so you gave him a new bus AND a bonus”.

          Make that: “the bus driver crashed, so you gave him a new jet AND a bonus”.

          They don’t take buses.

        2. vlade

          The bailout is the equivalent from getting a new bus. That you let the same driver into it again as anything but a passenger is a different story.

  3. jake chase

    It should be obvious to anyone that banks should be limited to plain vanilla lending. Eliminate derivative bets and bonuses would disappear. Banks have two important privileges: taking deposits and central bank backup. Why have we allowed them to become casinos? Because Congress is witless and utterly corrupt.

  4. LeeAnne

    and “Wall Street Transaction Tax Would Raise $350 Billion” A minuscule tax on financial transactions proposed by congressional Democrats would raise more than $350 billion over the next nine years, according to an analysis by the Joint Tax Committee, … ” HuffPo chump change

    Wake me up when they start talking $trillions.

    1. LeeAnne

      and, price controls have never worked -that including salary controls.

      but excessive profits have always signaled something wrong for regulators to look into. usually something involving monopoly and illegality. there are real markets that are naturally subject to laws of competition. Wall Street is a self regulated business that has become a business run by criminals.

      A million dollar limit on executive pay was put into effect under Clinton with an IRS penalty; the workaround by a criminal finance system was the creation of massive insider stock option scams.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Not true. They worked in World War II. We had over 40 years of price controls in banking (regulated saving rates). I saw a very persuasive that the Ford Whip Inflation Now program actually did contain costs, and if they had been bloodier-minded about enforcement and kept it in place longer, they might well have dented inflation expectations considerably.

  5. Richard


    I always think of the issue of pay as misleading.

    As you have pointed out, Wall Street makes its money from opacity. If we strip away the opacity, we directly impact the ability to take risks…and with it the ‘bonuses’.

    I know you have been busy with your fundraiser, but the really big story for the last several days has been Jefferies. When MF Global imploded, the markets turn on Jefferies because of their exposures to Eurozone sovereign debt.

    Jefferies responded by promising to disclose its current position level data. This statement totally debunked the myths surrounding Wall Street and its needs for keeping its balance sheets opaque.

    Can you imagine how quickly their phones lit up with calls from their ‘competitors’ urging them not to do this.

    Unfortunately, Jefferies did not go through with its disclosure – yes, it did publish some CUSIPs, but not the type of information that was needed to actually assess their risk.

  6. jim3981

    I think there is a reason for paying these guys so much money. First, it allows the elite to co-opt the leaders of these big corporate juggernauts. In effect people put in place are often pawns and not the best people for the job.

    Also by paying people so much money, the co-opted can be used to usher in other agenda like shipping workforces overseas. Stuff often not in the best interest of the country or people, but interest of the Elites.

    In affect many of the leaders are there to do what the elites want, not really what is best to run a better business.

    Very much like USA politics. Everybody is fully greased with money, which makes it easier for the elites to control them and dismantle countries and borders. This allows for complete manipulation of the system.

    When everybody is payed real well, they become dependent and will do ANYTHING required to keep that money flowing.

    On top of that, it is easier on the planet to make the 99% sick with prescription meds/vaccines while transfering all the wealth to the one percent. The one percent can’t burn all the worlds resources on food, yachts, or planes.

    1. alex

      Who are the elites if not the heads of major banks? Never ascribe to conspiracy what can be explained by mere corruption.

  7. LucyLulu

    Speaking of ending the bonuses……

    WSJ today had an article about bonuses being cut by 20-30% in 2011 due to declining profits. No subscription needed to view article.


    It was also reported here:


    Wall Street has long argued that lavish bonuses are a necessary institution for keeping so-called top talent. (The most glaring example of this was Bank of America, amid the depths of the recession.) WIth that in mind, we expect to see a mass exodus of traders, leaving their once-lucrative jobs for careers that have more generous bonus opportunities, like… umm… you know… okay, there has to be something.

    Violins playing in background……..

    1. Blunt

      Elementary school teaching, of course. Arne Duncan has made it quite lucrative with all of the added v alue of “teaching to tests”, etc!

  8. BarbaraNH

    “It is too bad that most Americans are allergic to government restrictions on compensation, even when it is amply warranted.”

    Yes, but the public isn’t quite as protective, or defensive, when it comes to bankers and banks in general. People understand that banks are middlemen in the economy, that they control the flow of money, for a price.

    Now is a good time to rally behind the notion that “banks are utilities.” It’s less threatening than the idea that government should put a cap on compensation, which smacks of ‘central control’ over people’s livlihoods.

    OWS should focus on Banks as Bloodsucking Monolith standing between the public’s means of exchange (money) and the public (us). Take them out of the free-market equation altogether.

    Make Banks Utilities! Free the Free Market!

    That could work.

  9. Linus Huber

    SCARE 20.12.2012
    (Stop Corruption And Repression Effective 20.12.2012)
    Banks were given a very important privilege to create money in the form of extending credit. This function requires diligence and careful consideration in regard to individual credit risks as well as to overall credit levels in the system. The financial crisis revealed that the banks were operating at too high a leverage and with too much risk. They were used to be saved by the Central Banks and certain that in times of difficulties the Central Banks were there to save them. They were like trained dogs and their master Greenspan or Bernanke would always be there to rescue them when unforeseen difficulties arose.
    That may be true but that does not absolve them from their obligation to monitor overall debt levels in the system as well as being diligent in evaluating the debtors ability to not only service a debt but to be able to repay it over time. The banks clearly failed in this function that is the core function of banking but focused mainly on their compensation packages. The way these bankers enriched themselves in the process of driving the financial system into a wall was appalling and the average income earner was never able to comprehend their schemes but preferred to simply ignore them. Of course, the bankers explained their outrages income levels with free market principles of supply and demand, where the best simply could be hired with those kinds of benefits only. In hindsight those superior managers seem to have missed their mark considerably. The most interesting aspect of all of this is the fact that, after we have been more than 3 years in this financial crisis, the bankers continue to loot the system as if nothing ever happened.
    True to form the Central Banks “saved” the financial system by saving those great financial institutions without whom the system would have collapsed, as was argued. Hardly were we out of the danger of collapse, the banks immediately went back to their old ways and were certain that this was a problem that would occur just once in a lifetime and now all was clear again. The real problem, however, had not been addressed but had simply been muddied.
    In actuality, the losses produced of extending unsustainable levels of credit by the banks have been transferred to the public. Different ways were chosen to achieve this task in the form of free money for the banks, injection of government funds into some institutions, increase of basic money supply and so on.
    The threat of system collapse would have been labelled blackmail if it would have occurred in another setting. However the bankers were able to influence the media, the legislators and regulators in their favour with all the financial resources available to them. Nobody was made to take any responsibility and no one was taken to account.
    This represents a serious violation of the spirit of the Rule of Law that is the basis of western society. It seems that now the new rule is Might is Right. This changes many parameters in the compass of the social system within the western world. No one can be sure on what level and when one will be subjected to the financial abuse of those elites. Presently, the people in charge are trying to enhance financial repression of which one form is to keep interest rates below the level of inflation which affects mainly those that lived within their means over the past many years; another clear violation of the spirit of the Rule of Law as it transfers losses from bad investments to the innocent and decent part of the population. In addition, the increased level of government debt puts in doubt all those benefits promised by governments the world over.
    It is interesting how the banks were able to confuse the public who was/is unable to grasp the actual situation. But considering the banker’s great financial resources, it seems not that much of a miracle to influence the media and the legislator and having politicians do their bidding. The question is what the heck can WE, THE PEOPLE do about it.
    Usually, we could address such things on a political level as we are a democracy, right? But it seems that the system has been corrupted by all the money sloshing around and it is extremely difficult to find any electable person that will act against those powerful interests. In addition, it will take many years until sufficient numbers of persons with the new thinking and with integrity not to be corrupted by those lobbying efforts will be elected to office that will implement the changes needed. So, what should we do? Start a revolution?
    Well, the blackmail used by the banks may be the only way to address the injustices that have occurred over the past few years. They showed us how to leverage one’s limited resources to achieve one’s goal. Therefore the following proposal to start the movement “SCARE 20.12.2012” should be seen in this context. The idea is that if by that time (20.12.2012) some serious injustices have not been removed from the system, people will start to withdraw their money from all financial institutions driving them into default. And it might work, because those who hesitate to support this threat may be left with no money as the banks will have to close down before all has been paid out.
    Now, what demands are made if that scenario is to be avoided.
    1. Bankers and past Bankers (all those working in the financial industry that earned in excess of $500k plus annually for more than 2 years during the past 15 years and this without any downside risk i.e. risk of financial losses, except the possibility of losing their job) have to be made personally accountable for their past activities and be removed from any such position that might directly or indirectly have influence on the money creation and lending aspects of the economy (this includes regulating agencies and politics) before 20.12.2012.
    2. Present and past regulators have to be made personally accountable for their past activities and be removed from any such position that might directly or indirectly have influence on the money creation and lending aspects of the economy (this includes financial institutions and politics) before 20.12.2012.
    3. Politicians that accept any financial support from institutions that are involved in the money creation and lending aspects of the economy will have to face a jail term of no less than 2 years without the possibility of parole.
    When these 3 points are implemented before 20.12.2012, we the public will not destroy the financial system but support the way to find back to the RULE OF LAW and away from the idea of MIGHT IS RIGHT.

  10. craazyman

    Actually, reversing this might actually get to the same place, and in a better way.

    Turn utilities into banks!

    * They already have a nationwide customer base of households, businesses and industrial firms.
    * They’re generally pretty sober and conservative in terms of business their practices.
    * They even clean up when there’s a mess (hurricane, snowstorm, etc.)
    * And they have IT infrastructure that handles customer accounts and monthly billing.
    * They have a culture of operating under heavy regulation. Profits and quality of service are heavily regulated at the state level, and interstate transmission is regulated at the Federal level. And their regulators really do regulate.
    * And they’re used to getting their butts kicked by customers and regulators.

    This started out as a joke, but the more I reflect on it, I could see this actually working!

    1. Travizm

      super interesting idea. i wonder what the problems would be getting this to fly (apart from the obvious political resistance)….seems sensible to me.

  11. F. Beard

    “They are utilities and need to be regulated as such.” Yves Smith

    Banks are counterfeiters. They create new, temporary money (“credit”) in exchange for a promise to repay that money PLUS interest that does not even exist in aggregate. The purchasing power for that new money comes disproportionally from the poor since they are typically considered less “credit worthy”.

    What is the utility of a system that is based on theft, usury, government privilege and oppression of the poor?

    Much less than zero?

    1. craazyman

      I believe the electricity metaphor is apt.

      Money is like electricity. It powers work that exists only in a state of potential until it can actualize through the access of the energy.

      The energy + the potential = the work = the asset = the wealth.

      So in a perfect world, the banks would energize with a flawless consciousness, enabling work that best serves the social good of society and that optimizes growing social wealth.

      Interest would be the fruit of this productive work, energized by the orignal money. So the interest payments would exist in potential, but not in reality until they are energized by the money.

      Like most human actions, all this requires a reasonably active conciousness and conscience not to run off the rails. The sins of banking are not, in my view, in the interest paid per se, but in the execution of the whole activity with an incomplete consciousness and a flawed conscience: this is the theft and the deceit, but the interest is only the manifestation of it.

      1. F. Beard

        Honest usury is the least of banking sins. You omit large scale counterfeiting and oppression of the poor.

        Also, banks do not qualify as a utility because there is no natural monopoly as is the case with true utilities such as roads, water, sewage and power lines.

        Government has a legitimate right to create money. But why should banks have that privilege, particularly via a government enforced monopoly?

        1. craazyman

          even if the government created money, there would need to be a framework for deciding who got the money, and that could be easily abused. And there was counterfeiting, and poor and oppressed peoples before fiat money banking, as world history attests.

          It’s true that banking is not a natural monopoly, and so the metaphor with utilities is not perfect, but it’s reasonably good. A form in which banking might assume some of the properties of a natural monopoly could be an ethical and socially conscious bank’s knowledge of its local community and resultant insights into credit risks and opportunities, but human nature being what it is, institutions can be coopted by a false consciousness, and so regulation would still be required to prevent abuse of subsets of the population.

          I don’t mean to excuse the contemporary pradations of banks, or to insinuate that fiat money banking is an optimal economic arrangement. I simply think the problems associated with it are a special case of a more general phenomenon, which relates to human nature and is hard to overcome with any institutional arrangement separated from an active and intent ethical awareness.

          You are like an Ahab and this topic is your Moby Dick. So be it. I don’t mind and that’s what makes for discussion.

        2. F. Beard

          even if the government created money, there would need to be a framework for deciding who got the money, and that could be easily abused. craazyman

          Not really. Honest lending of the government’s fiat would still be allowed (but only by private entities). And if that was inadequate (interest rates too high) then corporations could issue their own common stock as money.

          Government backed banking is a looting mechanism. Government does not need it and the private sector should not have it.

          1. Skippy

            Corporations printing their own money…hahahahaha! Like the give a stuff about anyone or thing save profit in the pockets of those at the top!

            Skippy…free market free market free market!!! A meta physical quasi religious construct smashed down on a world. Good plan!

          2. F. Beard

            Corporations printing their own money…hahahahaha! skippy

            Corporations do print their own money; it’s called common stock. And they are typically very reluctant to do so since issuing new stock dilutes existing shareholder value. Not only that but corporations sometimes buy back their own stock.

            Like the give a stuff about anyone or thing save profit in the pockets of those at the top! skippy

            Then boycott the common stock money of corporations you don’t like.

            free market free market free market!!! A meta physical quasi religious construct smashed down on a world. Good plan! skippy

            Then who do you nominate to rule us all? Another human? Are you a monarchist?

          3. F. Beard

            Corporations printing their own money…hahahahaha! skippy

            Banks already do so for all practical purposes – via so-called “credit” creation. But the banks don’t share wealth via their money creation, they reap it.

            Common stock as money would “share” wealth, not reap it. Got a problem with sharing, Skippy?

        3. LucyLulu

          While banks do create money in one sense, the central bank is responsible for overseeing the amount of money created, or the amount of money in the system, and have ultimate control (by raising interest rates, capital reserves, etc.). There is good reason that most nations have central banks and don’t allow governments direct control of this function. As bad as the Fed and Bernanke and Greenspan have been, could you imagine if Congress was in charge? On court à la catastrophe!

          1. F. Beard

            The solution to possible government mismanagement of money is that government money only be required for government debts, not private ones. That way, only government and its payees would suffer if government over-issued.

  12. Sunny129

    “As we’ve argued, banks, particularly in this era of extraordinary support (rock bottom interest rates, regulatory forbearance, underpriced insurance schemes) enjoy far more government support than any other industry, including defense contractors. They can’t properly be considered to be private companies. They are utilities and need to be regulated as such…”

    Banking is a sham industry

    “Essentially, the banking industry is a welfare state within the market economy,” he said in a speech this year. “The main difference with the normal welfare state is that the benefits are very high and that they are usually determined by the recipients themselves.”

    –Mr. Hoogervorst served as co-chairman of a body that advised the two (domestic/Int’l) accounting boards on the financial crisis


  13. JTFaraday

    Instead of ending *bonuses* at too big to fail banks, how about we just end too big to fail *banks* instead.

    After all, based upon everything that *they themselves* say, what they don’t destroy chasing performance pay, they will nevertheless destroy through gross incompetence.


  14. ZeroInMyOnes

    We really to lower bank pay…It is the only way to get rid of all this ‘top talent ‘ that is ruining our economy.

  15. Justicia

    Well, some mouthpieces of elite opinion may be critical of banksters, but not our Mayor:

    Gilded Blinders to the Reality of a Collapse

    Asked about the passions that fire the Occupy Wall Street crowds, Mr. Bloomberg gave an oh-puhleeze purse of his lips. Some complaints, he said, are “totally unfounded.”

    “It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis,” he said. “It was, plain and simple, Congress, who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

    Obviously, Bloomie doesn’t read Bill Black or Yves Smith.

  16. steelhead23

    I wholeheartedly agree. But, if I ran GS, there is a fair chance I would wish to pay some of my people an enormous salary – not so much because they are invaluable to GS – but because they could cause GS great harm were they employed by JPM or the like. You see, the use of quants and mathematicians/programmers to construct a business model makes one enormously vulnerable to intelligence leaks. Everyone knows what its like on the internet, where a 14 yo Romanian boy can take MSFT down. So now we have really smart kids, playing computer games, trying to uncover, not the other guy’s battleship, but his algorithm. And having lived with such a nerdy kid, I will tell you that “winning the game” is all that matters. Hence, I would not care whether my algos had signed rock-solid non-compete agreements, I would rather they were under my wing – where I could have my IT guys keep an eye on them. Thus, even if GS is not making much money, it might make a lot of sense for them to pay their algos richly. BTW – As I wrote this I realized that maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the money – its “winning the game” that motivates all this thievery. Hence, losing – as in going to jail – is needed or the game will last forever.

    1. LucyLulu

      Puhleeze. GS doesn’t make their money by coming up with clever algorithms. They make their money selling shit to their clients, and then taking the other bet.

      I don’t think I ever told this story. My sister is an attorney who does international finance for infrastructure development projects. She has worked with Eric Prince…….. he started meeting by saying “does everybody understand nobody is to mention the forbidden topic, right?” and my sister responded, “you mean that we are going to default?”….. she said you could hear people gasping….. fortunately she’s very good at what she does. She never seems to know the answers to MY legal questions but I hear if I ever want to do a merger of IBM and Apple, she’s the attorney I want to call. Gee, great. Anyways, she used to do Wall Street mergers and acquisitions in Boston after law school, and doesn’t care too much for the likes of GS, thinks they are all a**holes.

      So, we went out to dinner for her birthday not too long ago. She had recently met with a couple guys who worked for one of the major international banks on a deal she was putting together, both former GS traders. She asked why they left, knowing they must have taken a pretty good hit on their pay. They told her they had gotten tired of having to go out everyday and sell shit to clients and no amount of money was worth being able to sleep at night. It seems like that story has become more and more common, and not just at GS. Back in the 1980’s, people didn’t have those complaints, but back then, while there were successful traders who did quite well, they weren’t making the obscene amounts of money either.

  17. 60sradical

    What, exactly, are the mechanisms to bail out these banksters? Is a single American’s Federal tax raised?
    Most of us know the answer. Nobody pays via higher taxes.
    The Fed simply creates money from nothing and Voila! The banksters get legalized counterfeit which actually buys stuff. My endless refrain: End the(friggin’) Fed!!!
    As long as we have our “legalized” central bank, banksters get rich and we suffer the hidden tax of currency devaluation(i.,e., inflation, the sneaky way).

  18. Zap

    The banks are WELFARE CHEATS, not just welfare recipients but CHEATS.

    That’s the most cogent analogy I can think of to describe them.

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