The Question: Has executive compensation contributed to the financial crisis?
In the aftermath of the financial crisis there has been no shortage of finger-pointing in the attempt to identify its underlying causes. The list of potential culprits is long and ranges from bank deregulation to the “alchemy” of credit ratings and structured finance. This debate focuses on one factor that has allegedly contributed to the crisis: greedy bankers and the executive compensation packages that tempted them to, quite literally, bet the bank.
The spectacular collapse of banks whose executives were allegedly paid for performance clearly raises many questions about the link between executive pay and risk-taking. In a recent paper, Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef of New York University show that while in 1980 bankers made no more than their counterparts in other parts of the economy, by 2000 wages in the financial sector were 40% higher for employees with the same formal qualifications. The last time such a discrepancy was observed was just prior to the Great Depression—an irony which has not been lost on critics of bank compensation, ranging from regulators to the Occupy Wall Street protesters. But the level of compensation alone may not be the real problem. Many leading economists (see, for instance, op-eds from Alan Blinder and Raghuram Rajan) have emphasized that a much more important (and difficult) question to answer is how the structure of performance pay may encourage excessive risk-taking at all levels of the institution, from traders and underwriters right up to the firm’s CEO.
- Financial Sector