How do we make sense of these salary increases? Easily, in fact. During the go-go years, bank profits reached spectacular highs. Bank shareholders remunerated managers for delivering these riches; CEO pay grew almost exactly in line with shareholder returns. Reality then intervened. The heart-stopping global recession of the last few years was largely induced by financial sector excess. The long-term costs of the crisis are likely comfortably to exceed a year’s global income.
The continuing backlash against banking, as evidenced in popular protests on Wall Street and in the City of London, is a response not just to the fact that the world is poorer, as pre-crisis riches have turned to rags, but to the way these riches were privatised, while the rags are being socialised. This disparity is nothing new. Neither, in the main, is it anyone’s fault. For the most part the financial crisis was not the result of individual wickedness or folly. It is not a story of pantomime villains and village idiots. Instead the crisis reflected a failure of the entire system of financial sector governance.
In the first half of the 19th century, the business of banking was simple. The UK had around five hundred banks and seven hundred building societies. Most of the former operated as unlimited liability partnerships: the owners-cum-managers backed the banks’ losses with every last penny of their own personal wealth. The building societies operated as mutually owned co-operatives, with ownership, control and liability all pooled. Financial sector assets amounted to less than 50 per cent of annual UK GDP.
Banks’ balance sheets were heavily cushioned. Shareholder funds – so-called equity capital – protected depositors from loss and often accounted for as much as half of the balance sheet. Cash, and liquid securities such as government bonds, enabled banks to meet their payment obligations to depositors. They accounted for about a third of banks’ assets. Banking systems maintained broadly similar arrangements across the US and Europe. This relationship between governance and balance sheet was mutually compatible. Owing to unlimited liability, control was exercised by investors whose personal wealth was on the line – a potent incentive to be prudent with depositors’ money. Bank directors – the major shareholders responsible for day to day management – excluded investors who didn’t have sufficiently deep pockets to bear the risk. Shareholders were firmly on the hook, and had a strong incentive, in turn, to make sure that managers didn’t step out of line. Managers monitored shareholders and shareholders managers. In this way, the 19th-century banking model kept risk-taking in check.