Why Are We Wasting Our Energy on the Bonuses?

Includes: AIG, C
by: Promod Radhakrishnan

Last week saw an unprecedented amount of corporate CXO-bashing from politicians, public and the media in general. A sudden surge of moral anger seems to have been generated by the AIG bonus news. I don't personally support the AIG bonuses, but nonetheless, I cannot fathom the logic behind doing a witch hunt for the bonus recipients. We are living in a capitalistic economy and hence there's little merit in arguing on the lines of rich-getting-richer/ poor-getting- poorer.

Let's try to look at it from another angle. The past few decades saw unprecedented growth and as a result, an accumulation of personal wealth and a consistent increase in personal spending across most classes in society. This unfortunately came at the cost of lax supervisory oversight and poor market discipline. Everyone shared the gains, but leaders in the financial services space which drove or at least facilitated most of the economic expansion reaped the largest gains through windfall corporate profits and hence astronomical bonuses. We are seeing a drastic correction, which is forcing us to look at the value of fiscal prudence, savings and long-term sustainability. So, all of a sudden the same media and public voices which gaga-ed at Bill Clinton's talk of 'we do it large because we can afford it' turns around and moves to a position of extreme fiscal prudence and conservatism.

I am not saying the correction's not warranted - but I whole heartedly agree with the 'back-to-the-basics' move towards increased savings, financial prudence and controlled markets. However, it has to stop being a witch hunt - if we go overboard with governmental oversight and regulations, we would be committing a big mistake. What gain will come out of revealing the names of individual bonus recipients at Merrill Lynch or for that matter AIG? Even worse, state AGs are investigating why taxpayer money went to honor counter-party obligations of AIG related to its CDS portfolios! The government can and should use more subtle means to discipline firms who received tax payer funds - but stop at being moralistic. Do we REALLY expect businesses to stop honoring legal commitments, contractual norms and focus on reviving the economy and ensuring money flow? I hope not...there's a lot else that's left to be done before we spend our collective energies on discussions around economic philosophy.

  • By now, we know that no stimulus/bail out package can succeed unless the flow of money is restored in the larger economy - but we haven't YET seen anything substantial/serious from Tim Geithner and team to revive the financial services sector. While we saw individual firms like Citi (NYSE:C) forming 'bad money' banks and trying to separate out the wheat from the chaff, we still haven't seen any further light on the ambiguously termed larger 'public-private' partnership that was announced many weeks back. This is imperative to re-energize bank balance sheets and enable them to work 'normally' and do what they are supposed to do - lend money and facilitate money flow.
  • We haven't seen any details on revised accounting norms for mark-to-market valuation.
  • Nor have we seen any serious/informed discussion on the nature and form of regulations for the Securities and Investments industry that can prevent what happenned.

As a result, we have a financial services sector that's still stuck in a quagmire, with out either the ability or the willigness to circulate government and tax-payer funded money that's flowing in! While the government, media and a lot of us debate whether CXOs deserve the earn their million dollar bonuses.

Stock position: None.