By Steven Pearlstein
Friday, September 11, 2009
It's been a year since the onset of a financial crisis that wiped out $15 trillion of wealth from the balance sheet of American households, and more than two years since serious cracks in the financial system became apparent. Yet while the system has been stabilized and the worst of the crisis has passed, little has been done to keep another meltdown from happening.
Even the modest regulatory reform effort launched with much fanfare back in the spring is now bogged down by bureaucratic infighting and special interest lobbying. And back on Wall Street, the wise guys are up to their old tricks, suckering investors into a stock and commodity rally, posting huge profits on their trading desks and passing out Ferrari-sized bonuses. The Wall Street Journal reports they've even cranked up the old structured-finance machine, buying up claims to life insurance proceeds and packaging them into securities.
All of which makes it particularly disappointing that so little attention was paid this week to a report by a panel convened by the Aspen Institute on the "short-termism" that has now become hard-wired into the culture of Wall Street and corporate America.
This wasn't just any blue-ribbon committee. Its members include billionaire investors Lester Crown and Warren Buffett; mutual fund pioneer John Bogle; Richard Trumka, the soon-to-be new president of the AFL-CIO; present and former corporate chief executives Jim Rogers of Duke Energy, Lou Gerstner of IBM and Henry Schacht of Cummins; retired Wall Street hands John Whitehead of Goldman Sachs, Pete Peterson of the Blackstone Group and Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres; Marty Lipton, Ira Millstein and John Olson, the deans of the corporate bar; and respected academics such as Bill George of Harvard and Lynn Stout of UCLA.
Their complaint is that the focus on short-term financial performance by investors, money managers and corporate executives has systematically robbed the economy of the patient capital it needs to produce sustained and vigorous economic growth. And while their recommendations may not be as sexy as a cap on Wall Street bonuses or a ban on high-frequency trading, they get to the root cause of the financial crisis in ways that other reform proposals have not:
-- An excise tax on all security trades and a higher tax rate on short-term trading profits.
-- A revised definition of the fiduciary duty that pension and mutual fund managers owe to their investors, along with compensation schemes that better align their incentives with long-term objectives.
-- A requirement that only long-term shareholders be allowed to elect directors or vote on corporate governance issues.
-- Fuller disclosure by private investment funds of their holdings and their compensation.
The roots of this short-termism go back to the 1980s, with the advent of hostile takeovers mounted by activist investors. This newly competitive "market for corporate control" promised to reinvigorate corporate America by replacing entrenched, mediocre managers with those who could boost profits and share prices. In theory, the focus was on increasing shareholder value; in practice, it turned out to mean delivering quarterly results that predictably rose by double digits to satisfy increasingly demanding institutional investors. Executives who delivered on those expectations were rewarded with increasingly generous pay-for-performance schemes.
As fund managers grew more demanding of the short-term performance of corporate executives, investors became more demanding of the short-term performance of fund managers. To deliver better returns, managers responded by moving money from bonds and blue-chip stocks to alternative investments -- real estate, commodities, hedge funds and private equity funds -- where there was more risk, higher leverage and bigger fees. In time, the managers of these alternative investment vehicles began looking for new strategies to improve their results, and Wall Street was only too willing to accommodate with a dizzying new array of products.
At times, it seemed to work spectacularly. During the late '80s, the late '90s, and again during the recent boom, investors earned record returns and corporate executives and money managers earned record pay packages. But after the bubble burst in each cycle, the gains to investors turned out largely to have been a mirage, while the gains of the executives and the money managers remained largely intact.
It is all well and good to vow that compensation schemes will be changed so that executives and money managers sink or swim with their investors, but there is a limit to how far those incentives can be aligned. While these new and improved financial markets promise greater efficiency and liquidity -- except, of course, when they don't -- it's now clear that the benefits of all that efficiency and liquidity are captured largely by the Wall Street middlemen rather than their customers, or the economy as a whole.
The more fundamental problem, as the Aspen panel reminds us, is that the components of modern finance -- the securities, the trading and investment strategies, the financing techniques, the technology, the fee structures and the culture in which they operate -- are all designed to work together to maximize short-term results. And, in such a self-reinforcing system, it is very difficult to change any one feature without changing all the rest.
Steven Pearlstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.