What to do about bankers' pay

My new column for National Journal agrees with the Fed that bankers' pay needs to be supervised, but warns that by itself this will do little to improve financial safety.

The pay changes that the Fed proposes are worth making, but by themselves are insufficient. Other regulatory reforms in the works would do more to promote safety -- and, indirectly, curb the excesses of Wall Street pay at the same time. Regulators are proposing to increase the capital that banks and other financial firms are required to set aside against the risk of loans or other assets going bad. They are also considering new rules on leverage (the amount of borrowing a firm can do as a multiple of its equity) and liquidity (the amount of easily salable assets it must hold). A financial institution with more capital, less leverage, and more liquidity would be a safer operation -- and a less profitable one.

In thinking about future financial regulation, that is the fundamental trade-off. Taxpayers have learned that Wall Street's profits, and the fabulous pay that went along with them, have come partly at their expense. In effect, the industry has enjoyed a disguised public subsidy, in the form of a promise to underwrite its losses when things go wrong. Heads we win, tails you -- the taxpayer -- lose. In demanding a safer financial industry, as we should, we will be withdrawing that subsidy and thus insisting on a somewhat smaller and less profitable industry as well.

This, in turn, will mean less-outlandish pay. Shareholders in banks and Wall Street firms have given their employees a very generous deal in recent years -- far better than they have had themselves -- handing over about half of their revenues in pay. If finance shrinks, pay in finance will shrink. Reviewing the wreckage of the past two years, both of those things look eminently desirable.