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It will be really hard to control bonuses; let's tax them

by Jerome a Paris Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 09:27:23 AM EST

Back in 2005, I discussed an article from that Financial Times which noted that overpaid bankers were "the poster boys for the left" as "no other industry asks shareholders to take on the bulk of risks, while it gives half of all revenues to employees."

As the graph shows (from this WSJ article, bankers manage to capture more than half of the surplus of banks in good times, and to extract some (ie causing losses to their employers) in bad times.

As the debate rages on as to adequate compensation for bankers, let me repost here what I wrote 4 years ago:

As an investment banker myself, I know how easy it is to claim that I "made" x million for my bank, when I am just one - visible - cog in a big machinery that has decided that it was willing to rent the resource it plays with (money) in a given sector or to certain kinds of clients. So my claim to value viz. the client is that I have the ability to convince my employer to provide large chunks of that resource to such client, and when dealing with such large discrete bits of the resource (say 50 million at a time), the corresponding remuneration that I can claim responsibility for, as the tip of the machinery in contact with the client (say 1%) appears very large, and it's easy to say that a small piece of it should really go to me.

And it's true that I have some leeway with the client. I don't create value (well, I do, but maybe not that much), but I can allocate a lot of it between the client and the bank very easily, in ways that are very hard for anybody else to control, and the best way for the bank to make sure that it gets a fair chunk of it is to give me some incentive to do so. So I benefit from (i) dealing with large amounts (anything below a million is chump change), (ii) being very specialised (and thus harder to replace), (iii) being on the front line with the client (thus able to influence outcomes and claim credit) and (iv) actually getting deals done (hey, give us a little bit of credit!).

In other words, it is structurally easy for the people that have their hands on the money tap to claim that they are the almost-exclusive reason money is flowing. Thus bonuses will always tend to inflate as long as money flows (obviously today is a bit different in that respect), and it is never going to be easy to limit them, barring highly unusual circumstances, which may or may not last.

Which means that the solution has to be somewhere else: in tax policy. Bonuses (to be defined as all compensation received by bankers or licenced financiers beyond their salary should be specifically subject to very high marginal rates above certain thereshholds. That would limit the incentive to go for massively inflated numbers. It's the only way, in fact, and it will have the nice side effect of limiting the "arms race" with CEOs and other highly paid management, and of generating income for government.

My retirement fund (which I think was the first to offer a stock-based option, 1952) is now showing a 10 year average total returns (includes reinvested dividends) of -.73%.

That is if you put money in ten years ago it would have declined to a point now as if you had lost 3/4% each year. Of course all the losses at present are really due to the huge drop last year and the additional drop of 7% so far this year.

Judging by history some time in the next decade these numbers will all turn positive again and the long term average will return to the typical 7-8%. What this shows is that our economic system is willing to have a small lie to keep it going in normal times, that is that assets grow, after inflation, at about 4-5%, but that our system can't handle large shocks.

All the soul searching going on now still will not face up to the idea that asset growth is a fiction. Business can only expand in one of three ways: inflation, market growth, usually through population growth, and increases in productivity.

Not accounted for in all of this is the need to consume more raw materials to keep the growth sustained. As these are priced artificially low the growth fiction continues. Now that shortages are looming some are starting to realize that things can't go on as before.

Perhaps people will look back on this period in 30 years and realize that it was nothing more than another oil shock just like that of the 1970's. Blaming things on housing or derivatives or leveraging is like blaming your running nose on your handkerchief.

The lost of confidence may be the realization that the rules are changing and people don't see any good place to put their funds.

I won't repeat my mantra about the need for a steady-state economy, but if we had assured health care and old age care we would have no need for wealth accumulation has a hedge against such expenses and we could give up the fiction of the "magic" of compound interest.

Perhaps the lack of confidence is justified, but the lack of any signs of understanding on the part of world leaders.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 01:10:43 PM EST

Richest Americans' Income Doubled as Tax Rate Slashed

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- The average tax rate paid by the richest 400 Americans fell by a third to 17.2 percent through the first six years of the Bush administration and their average income doubled to $263.3 million, new IRS data show.

The 17.2 percent tax rate in 2006 was the lowest since the IRS began tracking the 400 largest taxpayers in 1992, although the richest 400 Americans paid more tax on an inflation-adjusted basis than any year since 2000.

The drop from 2001's tax rate of 22.9 percent was due largely to ex-President George W. Bush's push to cut tax rates on most capital gains to 15 percent in 2003.

So increasing their tax rates would only bring us back to the late 90s, terrible times as we know.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 02:36:16 PM EST
Is this structured and argumented enough to be posted on dKos?

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 02:42:18 PM EST
Yes, but is there a point? Everyone on that site is so sure that they are right no matter what their viewpoint is.

Reasoned argument is in short supply, unlike here.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 03:10:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the compliments to ET - but that's precisely why I was worried about the lack of comment here...

Anyway, I've posted the story over there (http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/1/31/15123/1668/172/691406), at least to expose the audience over there to the notion of higher taxes, and also because you do get some good comments too.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 03:40:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Unfortunately, it spins off the diary list so quickly buried by the avalanche of 'my pet issue' diaries.  
by NvDem (EdGoodrich( at) gmail (well you know the rest)) on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 04:40:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What I'm thinking is "why bonuses only?" Because they are the discretionary part of their pay? In that case, I think you should re-hash that particular point from the 2005 diary, because it is not obvious to somebody who isn't familiar with the subject (wasn't obvious to me, at least).

Basically, I think the question I still don't know the answer to is "sure, we can tax bonuses, but what will prevent them from just juggling around their income to ordinary salaries?"

If you take 90 % of the bonus and only 60 % of the salary, then naturally, you'd see a move from bonus to salary, just as we've seen a move from salary to bonus when the (effective) rate on bonuses was lowered to well below the rate on salaries. Is that in and of itself A Good Thing? It might be, if the salary is a monthly sum and the bonus scheme is some crazy short-term stock-option gimmickry, but it's not intuitively obvious that it is in general.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 03:43:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree on the "why bonuses only?" point. Just add a bunch of higher tax rate brackets to the existing ones. In the UK, for instance, the 40% maximum tax rate kicks in around GPB40k gross annual income. There is lots of room at the top for brackets with higher tax rates.

Most economists teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless. -- James K. Galbraith
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Feb 2nd, 2009 at 03:39:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know... maybe it's because I don't think like a banker :-) but I don't see why going through all this complication.

In a regular (not a bank) company, things would go like this: if the company lost truckloads of money, due to bad investments that went south and that it comes to a point where the government comes and bail it out with taxpayers money, then it's very likely that the next memo to all hands will be something like this: because the company needs to conserve cash, next to no visibility on the business in the coming months, etc, etc... well, bonuses will be forgotten this year; be thankful we're not implementing a mass layoff. If there's some ethics left in the management (it happens), they will even announce a 20% pay cut for all the top management.

That's it. Done. Don't like it? Insist on your bonus no matter what? OK, see that door with "Exit" written on it? Go ahead and hit it...

I mean, what so effing complicated? The state saved the banks with taxpayers money; they have the right to control how the darn money is used.

Rather than taxing the loot afterwards, why not preventing the looting from going on in the first place? That's how many people would reason, I guess...

There is also a problem with taxing the bonuses: although we all agree that proportional taxation should be restored, this is one really, really steep uphill battle.

For years, the people have been brainwashed that taxes are baaad, they are an impediment to innovation, growth, job creation and a threat to civilization as we know it...

Anyway, those are my thoughts...

by Bernard (bernard) on Sun Feb 1st, 2009 at 12:59:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think so because it can be seen as self-promotion jumping straight to a very generous sense of fairness, without saying why more loads of specific/narrow tax regulation are necessary, or even a practical idea.  

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Sun Feb 1st, 2009 at 02:10:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In the US an employee's bonus (i.e. additional cash compensation or commission) is taxable income and adjusted gross income is taxed at the marginal rate in which the total falls. I'm sure there's guidance at IRS as to applicable schedule and allowances that reduce gross income of this non- salary compensation.

Perhaps you are like myself concerned by financial reporting encourages tax disincentives through distribution of profits to employees after calculating net income but before declaring taxable corporate income and retained earnings. EBT: earnings before tax or "net income." See also EBIT, earnings before interest and tax; EBITDA, earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortization.

Here is an example of how financial reporting comply with UK-GAAP and the International Accounting Standard (IAS) guidance on compensation structures -- to shelter profit reporting.

The Group operates a number of deferred share bonus and options schemes, the largest of which is the Deferred Share Bonus Plan (DSBP). Under this non-pensionable annual bonus scheme for Directors and senior executives, a part of the annual bonus, at the discretion of the Remuneration Committee, may be
awarded in the form of deferred conditional rights to ordinary shares in the Company, with the additional part of the bonus being paid out in cash. Annual bonuses are subject to the attainment of challenging performance targets which are specific to each individual and either relate to Group thresholds, subsidiary company targets or a combination of both for a period not exceeding the relevant financial year of the Company.  The annual bonus pool for the Group is fixed, based on pre-bonus profit based calculations.  The element of the bonus pool which is paid out in cash is determined by deducting share based payment charges made against income in the performance period from the bonus pool.

During 2004, the amount which was charged against the bonus pool for share based payments was the UK GAAP charge, and the balance of the bonus pool was paid out as cash bonus. The latter amount is not impacted in 2004 by the restatement of the share based payment charge to IFRS, but in the future it will be.  The adjusted EPS takes account of this one-off adjustment in 2004. ...

Employee Benefit Trust

The Company has established The Savills plc 1992 Employee Benefit Trust (the
EBT), the purposes of which are to grant awards to employees to acquire shares
in the Company pursuant to the Savills plc 1992 Executive Share Option Schemes and the Deferred Share Bonus Plan and to hold shares in the company subsequent to transfer to employees on exercise or vesting of the awards granted under the schemes. The assets and liabilities of the EBT are included in the balance sheets of the Group and the Company. Investments in the Group's own shares are shown as a deduction from shareholders funds.

I've no reason to believe that finance departments elsewhere do not utilize legitimate tax advantages and SPE capital to maximize "bonus" earnings, even if that requires shorting the company's stock.

And as I understand the GAAP schema, corporate revenue recognition and timing of employees' compensation tend to minimize rather than maximize taxable income in any given fiscal year. NB. In general in the US asynchronous reporting provides a crude incentive to defer compensation. The corporate fiscal year is 1 Oct to 30 Sept; tax reporting is 30 March, iirc, in the immediate calendar year following. The individual tax year is calendar Jan to Dec. So Q4 of the calendar year is the period to reconcile profits earned and deferred (excluded from quarterly corporate taxable income) over the prior 12 months. Typically, employee bonuses are paid (realize) profits between Jan and March in the following calendar year, therefore recognized in the next tax year.

Here is an example of "bonus pool" structures.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 04:44:51 PM EST
You make it sound so simple to understand, but it's actually so complicated that even Geithner and Daschle didn't quite understand the fine points.


"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anaïs Nin

by Crazy Horse on Sat Jan 31st, 2009 at 08:43:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think this is where a good part of the story will ultimately be found.  I have had a hard time understanding how it is that bankers (and other like-creatures) have been able to obtain such obscene levels of compensation.  CEO's too, or primarily, have received huge chunks, from their boards, whose members then receive big salaries and bonuses at their "jobs" where their highly paid CEO friends return the backscratching.  The strange thing is that this seems to be at the expense of the owners.  And yet, these CEO-types are also owners, I think.  Who are they stealing from?  

This is where I've been somewhat confused.  Is it the little old ladies?  That would be my gut guess.  They have successfully argued to the trustees of the "widows and orphans" trusts that they deserve a big bunch of money, and my guess would be they are cutting in the trustees of the trusts somehow, so all the "guys" (is it unfashionable to blame it on men?) get theirs and the widows and orphans, in a boom time, get enough to be sufficiently coddled and quieted, so that there is no one left to raise much of a stink.  I think maybe the "owners," the capitalists have installed themselves as salaried managers (aka CEO's) and their friends as decision-making board members.  They all vote each other big packages.  This probably all was made possible when huge numbers of blind sheep were made "owners" through pension plans which put huge piles of money into the system (at least on paper)  for these manager/owners/directors to "play" with (stuff into their sacks) while the sheep people believed they had a stake in the "economic boom."

That being said, I don't really undestand why it should be so hard to control bonuses, unless you're saying that their undoing would somehow only be accomplished through the undermining of private contracts (oh, no, not that).

Any way, I agree, based on what I've seen in my life that those with bunches of money will not give it over unless they are utterly forced to, and the only way to do that in this day an age (I still believe it is possible, though I may be wrong) is through a very high tax rate.

perhaps I should have left gender out of the discussion.  Forgive me if I've offended.  Substitute strong-arming bruisers (could be male or female) and wealthy, but gullible dupes (again, could be males or females).  

by jjellin on Sun Feb 1st, 2009 at 07:16:03 PM EST
... that they are stealing from ... since its the same value added one way or another, on average, with the executive senior management working for $10m's in the US certainly doing no better a job of management than the executive senior management working for $100K's in Japan.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Feb 1st, 2009 at 09:10:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
oh, and now that the "economic boom" has been shown to be a sham, the Masters of the Universe are claiming their "TARP," complete with bonus packages, jets and caviar parties--in other words they are insisting on cashing in when there is nothing and one could probably argue that there never was.  What part of "bubble" do they not understand?   Poof--gone.  How is it that we are letting these bruisers get away with claiming they are owed anything????    It's all gone, like the equity in my house.  Is Congress going to send me a check for the $30,000 equity I've lost in the last year?  
by jjellin on Sun Feb 1st, 2009 at 07:24:06 PM EST
Maybe you should send them a letter asking that question. And if they fail to answer in the affirmative, maybe you should send them a package with a torch and a pitchfork.

Imagine the scene in Washington if a million people started sending torches and pitchforks to Congress every time the robber barons were given another round of handouts...

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Feb 2nd, 2009 at 03:01:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
by das monde on Sun Feb 1st, 2009 at 11:09:48 PM EST
Maybe, their bonuses should be limited to their banks' shares which should be locked up until retirement, and be taxed fully upon disposition.

This will sharply limit their desire to create a bubble and will force them to focus on long-term growth.

... Isn't this the 19th century British banking?

I will become a patissier, God willing.

by tuasfait on Mon Feb 2nd, 2009 at 09:49:40 PM EST
What I am missing in the piece is why banking is different from other functions in this regard. You write:
So I benefit from (i) dealing with large amounts (anything below a million is chump change), (ii) being very specialised (and thus harder to replace), (iii) being on the front line with the client (thus able to influence outcomes and claim credit) and (iv) actually getting deals done (hey, give us a little bit of credit!).

Let's compare that to a an operator in an oil refinery or other chemical plant, someone who literally controls the tap of a plant delivering millions of euros every day. But no one expects this person to receive 1% of the plants output, even if he has the ability to shut customers off.

Perhaps the " being very specialised (and thus harder to replace)" bit is important, but again I am quite sure that somewhere in the plant hierarchy there is going to be a highly educated plant manager with decades of experience who is hard to replace and highly critical for the plant operation, but still is not earning a poor banker's salary.

I mean, if bankers are keeping too much of the flow going past them, and that might well be true, what is keeping people from setting up another bank, with lower bonuses and lower prices to their customers for the same services?

And if bankers are using their special relation with customers to force their company to pay bonuses, why not fire them? Just imagine what would happen if VW's drivetrain engineers said "Without an engine the car won't run, so we need a bonus or we won't design engines"

I would really like to hear why bankers and banks have (had?) this apparent bargaining power that highly skilled people in other sectors do not seem to have.

by GreatZamfir on Tue Feb 3rd, 2009 at 05:29:45 AM EST

I would really like to hear why bankers and banks have (had?) this apparent bargaining power that highly skilled people in other sectors do not seem to have.

because kings, governments, parliaments, corporations and common people are in hock to them?

similarly to the defence industry, they have made themselves indispensable.

differently, bankers make out in war or peace...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Feb 3rd, 2009 at 07:12:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But the principle of banking would be that they are in hock again to others...

And while the defense industry as a whole is fat and powerful, its employees are not that much wealthier or powerful than their equivalents in other industries.

I mean, the strange thing about banking isn't just that they take in loads of money, but that so much of that money ends up with people who are not the top-level bosses or shareholders.

by GreatZamfir on Tue Feb 3rd, 2009 at 08:53:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But the principle of banking would be that they are in hock again to others...

by social contract, you mean?


money ends up with people who are not the top-level bosses or shareholders.

i don't catch your meaning here. do even bankers that are low on the food chain get massive bonuses?

the other thing that differentiates the two industries is the extreme secrecy of the defence, need to know etc.

why should banking be so opaque, unless it's for shady reasons?

because it's competitive?

with the economy in ruins due to malpractice, malign neglect, corrupting the regulation processes through lobbying pressure, and i believe much malice aforethought, i'm with other posters here who believe that the glamour and exceptionalism must be stripped from banking. they're just so goddamn powerful, and have forgotten the virtues of discretion, become self-referential, and hubris reigned supreme.

these were the bush years, so they took their cues from that, but it's been coming for a long time before.

the fact that the setup right now, between their non-nationalised status, state permission to do fractional reserve hat/rabbit trick games etc, already makes their jobs more secure, privileged and important than most. letting them become the equivalent of some blend of fighter pilots, masters of the universe, formula one drivers... they can obviously not be trusted to keep any humility going, unless imposed from without.

and i hope the next time some one tries to deregulate them, peoples' memories are better.

i mean, they already were doing well, they got so greedy, and now we pay.

they should be able to get away with just a 'oops sorry!' and back to business as usual?

they're lucky they're not swinging from ropes, and i still wonder if that might happen later this year and next, as the full whammy of what they have done comes home to the people who believed their lies and flim-flammery, and who are collecting their anti-bonuses for their credulity.

they already are winning the prize for shameless, insultingly tasteless behaviour.

it's a profession that once had dignity, after all, much of it false, i'll grant you, but now?

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Feb 3rd, 2009 at 01:18:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by social contract, you mean?

No, just that banks borrow the money they lend from someone else again. Their banks after all, not just rich...

do even bankers that are low on the food chain get massive bonuses?

As far as I can tell, yes. Or at least much lower on the food chain than elsewhere. People I knew who started as lowly analysts in London already got high salaries, although they had to work their brains out. But the weird bonuses already started a little higher up the ladder.

Not multi-million or so, but still amounts most people would call a good year's income, and importantly depending on short-run performance.

That's what I never understood. I understand why CEOs can give themselves free money: there is no one above them in a position to stop them. Doesn't mean I like it, but I understand the mechanism to some extent.

But both for bankers and banks I don't understand.

by GreatZamfir on Wed Feb 4th, 2009 at 04:38:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Trading is one of the industries where personal contacts and knowledge are the most important, whereas "hard" capital is quite easily replicable ; any large enough bank can provide the financial capital. The way traders got huge bonuses is by theatening to quit and join another bank ; this was usually done by the head of a trading desk, threatening to leave with its whole team. A trading desk leaving a bank and being hired more or less intact by another bank can take the customer base with it, and the profits that go along with it. There was sociological work on this by Olivier Gaudechot, a French sociologist ; I don't know if he has been translated.

The same kind of reasonment applies to Merges and Acquisition bankers...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Wed Feb 4th, 2009 at 05:19:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thats the title of a chapter in Tim Harford's book 'The Logic Of Life.

Its because executives play in a renumeration tournament. It is relative pay and bonuses that count as motivation. take a grand slam tennis tournament. The winner in the final gets MUCH more than the beaten finalist and MUCH more in turn than the beaten semi-finalists.

The point of having a huge renumeration deal for the CEO is not to motivate that person to work extra hard. It is to motivate the half-dozen or so people who might reasonably aspire to succeed that person to work extra hard. On this theory they need to be paid a lot less than the top honcho. And in turn this motivates the small crowd of people who might succeed them (and who in turn need to be relatively lowly paid). Thus the culture of unimaginable bonuses and options for the people who make it through to the 'finals' in the renumeration tournament.

The incentive system would work even if the CEO did nothing else than play golf - provided there is a small army of furiously over-achieving underlings trying to win the tournament by promotion to the next level.

Over in the USA Obama apparently intends to cap renumeration for top executives of organisations getting state help. This will wreak the tournament incentive structure. This could be interesting. It might be helpful to read up on tournament theory to understand some of the inevitable shrieks at this move.

Tournament theory has stood the test of time and has been supported by many subsequent pieces of empirical research. It also makes a perverse kind of sense: the more grotesque boss's pay, and the less he has to do to earn it, the bigger the motivation for you to work with the aim of being promoted to have what he has... so there you have it. Economists don't even pretend that your boss deserves his salary.

Tim Harford ' The Logic of LIfe: uncovering the new economics of everything' pp 106-110 in my UK edition

Harford has some interesting discussions on how tournaments arise in business - which suggest that the problems will not go away even if the system is subverted or taxed.

Tournament theory was devised by economist Ed Lazear back in the 1980's.

'Rank Order Tournaments as Optimum Labor Contracts' Journal of political Economy 89, No.5 (1981)

by saugatojas on Wed Feb 4th, 2009 at 11:06:10 AM EST
Very nice.

Most economists teach a theoretical framework that has been shown to be fundamentally useless. -- James K. Galbraith
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Feb 4th, 2009 at 11:10:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It does not help the situation that the CEOs and the boards and other agencies that are supposed to exercise oversight have an unfortunate tendency to end up at the same cocktail parties...

Calling it "incestuous" is perhaps too harsh. But certainly it rises to the level of cousin-kissing.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Feb 7th, 2009 at 11:44:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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