Curious Capitalist

Rewiring the Banker Brain

A culture shift is still needed to reconnect finance with the real economy.

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Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York, April 15, 2013.

If you are in any doubt about how little has changed on Wall Street since 2008, check out yesterday’s front page New York Times story about how banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley profited wildly by hoarding and slowing the supply of various commodity metals like aluminum, driving up prices on the global market in the process. It was a truly ingenious profit-making scheme, involving sophisticated arbitrage of complex global regulations, all of which resulted in lots of money for banks, and higher prices for companies and consumers.

This story put me in mind once again of the fact that many of the best minds on Wall Street still spend the majority of their time figuring out new and smarter ways to game the system, rather than how to grease the wheels of the real economy. Just look at the record profits posted by a number of the world’s largest banks last week. The six largest are on track to post a 20% earnings increase in the second quarter of this year. But the vast majority of that money came not from lending, but from trading. While the money spigots to the small and new businesses that create most of the jobs in this country are still tight — like last year, small business lending was down again this year, according to the Small Business Administration — trading profits are way up.

Clearly, finance is still disconnected from the real economy, which is one reason that the regulation battle rages on. A new proposal issued jointly a few days back by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency would require some of the country’s largest banks to hold double the amount of reserve capital that they currently do. This has prompted all the usual complaints from the industry about too much regulation. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, now the head of bank advocacy group the Financial Services Roundtable, said the new rules would make “it harder for banks to lend and keep the economic recovery going.”

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Putting aside the fact that lending in key areas of economic activity hasn’t been growing, as I noted above, it’s also worth remembering that even before the new rules were proposed, many banks were complaining that they couldn’t lend because there weren’t enough credit-worthy clients to lend to. “You can’t have it both ways,” says Susan Ochs, a former Treasury Department advisor and senior fellow at the Aspen Institute who is doing research on best practices in banking. “The arguments have a certain level of disengenousness.”

All of this begs the question of whether regulation alone can change the mindset of financier. Five years on from the crisis, with a new set of Dodd-Frank banking regulations, calls for greater capital requirements, and even a proposed return to the Depression-era Glass-Steagall separation between investment and commercial banking (which, of course, banks are fighting against tooth and nail), you still have a finance culture that hasn’t changed at all. As Ochs pointed out to me recently, there’s no reason to think that regulation would create a change, when the culture of banks still supports profit-making for it’s own sake, and doesn’t connect the dots between customers, personal behavior, and compensation. According to her, one key reason banking has lost its moorings in the real economy is because it has moved from a relationship culture to one rooted in high-speed technology and trading. In this world, the quantitative mathematicians who build the profit-making trading models for banks are totally disconnected from customers. And the biggest rewards may in fact come from trading against customers.

The point was driven home in a new survey on financial industry ethics released last week by the law firm Labaton Sucharow, one of the first to establish a practice dedicated to defending corporate whistle-blowers. According to the survey of 250 financial industry insiders, including traders, portfolio managers, investment bankers, and hedge fund managers, misbehavior in finance is rife. A quarter of those interviewed felt employees in their own company had engaged in misconduct, including insider trading, breaking securities law, or acting against the interests of their own clients. Twenty-three percent reported that they had observed or had first-hand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace. And 29% believed that financial services professionals may actually need to engage in illegal or unethical behavior to be successful. In fact, many assumed their bosses would look the other way about bad behavior, as long as they were making money for the firm. Is it any wonder, then, that 24% admitted they would engage in insider trading if they could get away with it? And this problem isn’t likely to go away anytime soon, if only because younger Wall Street professionals were significantly more likely to be aware of, accept, and engage in illegal or unethical conduct than more senior staffers.

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So, how can we fix things? Barring a complete split between commercial and investment banking, massively better funding for regulators and white-collar crime prosecutors, or any number of other unlikely legislative overhauls, is there a way back to an old-fashioned, relationship-based lending model for Wall Street biggest firms? It’s possible that the answer is no. “The major banks simply don’t want to do small lending, even though it would spur the economy,” says Ochs. “It’s simply a very low profit area for them.” Indeed, she and many others in the industry believe that entirely new models of individual and small business lending will come to dominate – witness the increased growth of credit unions, crowd funding, and alternative online lenders like Simple, Moven, and GoBank. In the future, you may even get your next small business loan from Wal-Mart, Apple, or Google rather than from a conventional retail bank.

At the same time, there’s a growing push to get financiers to think differently by radically shifting the way they are compensated. A number of large banks like Deutsche, for example, have expanded bonus periods to five years rather than a single year to incentivize longer-term thinking. Others are considering mixing measures of trading volatility into bonus formulas so that performers who take big risks — even if they sometimes pay off — must pay a price. “Money shouldn’t be made in just any manner,” says Ochs, who would like to see a Hippocratic oath for the investment industry. “You want profit making that’s constructive, rather than a ‘rape and pillage’ system.”

Tell that to the people who are busy driving up the price of aluminum.