For all the uproar over the AIG bonuses–the classism, the waste of tax dollars, the obliviousness of the banking industry, the contract law questions–what seems to be lurking around the edges is a very strong worry that financial experts don’t know squat. Observe: AIG executives are arguing not only are they contractually obligated to pay the bonuses, they’re arguing that retention bonuses have to be paid in order to fix AIG. Now, I haven’t seen the contracts, but I’m pretty sure no employer would sign anything that pays retention bonuses that doesn’t have a “for cause” firing exception. AIG can take the guys that signed off on the derivatives and whatnot, look at their work performance over the last year, and fire their asses. No bonuses.
Why don’t they? Because they’re under the impression that the folks that got AIG into this mess are the most qualified to get AIG out of this mess. I’ve heard this same sentiment echoed in other arenas–that we shouldn’t let a lot of investment banks fail because too many financially savvy individuals would be out of work and may leave the industry, or we ought to be hiring regulators from the financial industry because they’ll be in a better position to understand how it works.
But I’m not convinced. In fact, after reading (e.g. “Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street“) about how the financial industry works, I’m reasonably convinced these clowns have no fucking clue what they’re doing.
A qualifier: there are financial transactions–like mortgages and bonds–that most laypersons can, if they choose to, understand. Because they are, at their heart, loans. They’re “I’ll give you money today if you promise you give me more money tomorrow” transactions. They make sense. Yes, there are a lot of complications tacked on, mostly to ensure that your promise to pay more money tomorrow is not illusory, and that even if you renege, there’s some recourse. But at the core, these are loans.
But most securities–even things that have been around for centuries, like stocks–are a goddamned joke. There’s no expertise. There’s only a whisper of a relationship between the soundness of the company and the stock price. Indeed, our entire regulatory system is premised on the idea that stock prices are by their very nature accurate. That the company really is worth its market cap. Of course, the underlying assumption of that is that everyone knows everything. Which means we regulate trades where someone knows more than the rest of us.
What that means is securities trading consists of (a) transactions between people of equal relevant knowledge, i.e. gambling, and (b) transactions between those in the know and those not.
Many trades are between people in the know, the so-called financial experts. These people are gambling with other people’s money. This is what happens when your mutual fund company buys or sells a bunch of stock. It’s moving money around without a basis, and for that the mutual fund manager gets a cut.
Other trades are between people of disparate knowledge. That could mean insider trading, which is a big no no in the publicly traded arena, but is regularly practiced with private sales. The “I know about my business than you, and I’m going to conveniently leave out some bad facts to convince you to pay a higher price for a piece of my business than it’s worth” transaction. It could also be the outsider trading, the “I researched the situation heavily, and I don’t think you did, either because you don’t have the access I have, or you simply are too lazy to do your homework” transaction. [This second one is the one Jim Cramer champions.]
But here’s the thing: I’m pretty convinced the insiders and outsiders-with-research are inept at valuation. The insider or the outsider-with-research may think he’s pulling a fast one on the ignorant outsider buyer by inflating the share price…but what determines the share price? How much is the company worth? What sort of factors have to be considered to even begin to answer that question? Is there any good way of doing it? I submit the answer is no. There are too many unknowns. Too many variables.
It isn’t that you don’t get a somewhat predictable market reaction, or that securities are a bad investment. It’s just that they’re not based upon anything real. Or, more to the point, they’re not based upon anything predictable in the long term. And because they’re not based on anything predictable, all the extra knowledge an insider or an outsider-with-research may have doesn’t amount to anything substantive. It’s all still gambling.
So my point is: fire the assholes who fucked up the economy. Deny them their retention bonuses. Then hire some new guys without any experience on the cheap. It’ll work out the same either way. And at least the second way you’re not throwing so much good money after bad.