I had posted the following comment in response to this article in FT:
Much of the comments on this article focused on the micro behaviour of individuals who chose to join financial institutions and hence were, for the most part, defensive about their behaviour and hence, critical of the article. But, that lens is the wrong one.
The article points to a paper that highlights the attractiveness of finance to engineers as opposed to other jobs that were more suited to their education. It is a social phenomenon and the responses have to be in the policy domain, if it is established that there has to be a policy response. As individuals, engineering graduates who joined the banking industry were doing the sensible thing for themselves and their families. This commentator and Andrew Hill would have done the same, in all likelihood. But, we need to move away from that frame.
Why did finance attract so much talent? A corollary question that poses itself is why was finance able to pay so much that talent flowed to it? Well, finance made so much of profits that it was able to pay. Actually, the attraction of talent, high wages and profits became mutually reinforcing trends later. But, what was the source of profits?
Finance, in modern times (post-1980s because that is when financial liberalisation, de-regulation and liberalisation of capital flows started in right earnest), has not been doing anything unique in comparison to the past. It facilitated much secondary trading of financial securities. But, the compensation for it has come down considerably and the fees for active asset management have, for the most part, proven to be wasted and wasteful compensation. So, what was the source of it?
Andrew Haldane, in his contribution to the volume, ‘The Future of Finance’ published by the London School of Economics in 2010 (‘Contribution of the Financial Sector: Miracle or Mirage’) has pointed out that finance generated extraordinary profits because it wrote deep out of the money options (think Credit Default swaps and sub-prime securitisation). Deep out of the money options earns premium for the writer but once in a while these options get in the money and the writer has to pay up to the options owner. That is what happened in 2008. Second source of profits was that much of the profits were risk-unadjusted. One source of risk is that many assets were valued as per models and hence shown at fair value. Second source of risk is high leverage ratios in investment banks’ balance sheets. The third arose out of creating products that, willy-nilly, drew the buyers into the web of financial leverage. In fact, that is where the engineering talent was needed.
High profits were required to maintain stock valuation in deference to the pressures exerted by institutional investors. Second, compensation of higher executives was linked to stock price performance. Hence, showing consistently rising profits was an obligation. That required generation of complex financial products which, though based on complex mathematics, were essentially built on unsuspecting clients assuming financial leverage. Developing these products required engineering talent. Ergo, the phenomenon that the paper and the article cover.
Now, the question for policymakers is whether any of this is welfare enhancing. Evidently, they are not. Their welfare-destruction was evident in the crisis of 2008. Have the policy responses changed the demand for engineering talent and the attraction of finance to such talent? Not much, if at all.
So, this is a socially negative phenomenon even though it is positive at the personal level, somewhat like the paradox of thrift that Keynes had discussed, in a different context.
In this context, it is worth noting that Bloomberg reported last evening that bonuses in Wall Street reached their highest level since 2006.