Barack Obama has made international news announcing a salary cap for the heads of companies that are being bailed out by government. Other governments are expected to follow suit. Billions have been lost, and trillions pumped in to keep these companies afloat. Compared to that, these salary caps are loose change, not the ‘change we can believe in’ people hoped for.
That bankers are being bailed out, while home owners struggle, and people are laid off, is galling to many. Robert Borosage, president of the Institute for America’s Future, has said that “many homeowners were misled by predatory lenders to taking mortgages that they didn’t understand and couldn’t afford. It would be simply obscene to help the predators and not those that they preyed on.” Some also question the revolving door between bankers and regulators, and whether people like former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who became super-rich from working in one of the firms whose practices had helped create the crisis, should have been deciding how to hand out billions to the same sector. News that the bankruptcy courts released $2.5bn to secure Lehman Brothers bonus payments at a time when savers were losing out, is just one example of a situation that seems to many like a systemic abuse of power by a professional elite of regulators, judiciary and bankers. Then Merryll Lynch giving out more millions to its staff as the crisis really crunched is not just obsence, as time may tell, it is likely criminal.
The bail-outs are defended by the fact that a financial institution is “too big” or “too interconnected” to fail and that its failure would cause a systemic risk. If governments and regulators have let financial institutions become so big that they cannot be allowed to collapse, shouldn’t they be encouraging more competition and more diversity? This is at least the view of trade unions. UNI Finance, the global trade union for finance workers, has repeatedly called for a diverse finance market that includes not only private banks and insurance companies but also public banks, savings banks and insurances, co-operative banks, mutual insurance companies and foundations. However, this does not seem to be the view of governments and regulators who are pushing failing institutions into the arms of healthier ones (e.g. acquisition of Merrill Lynch by of Bank of America in the United States or the takeover of HBOS by Lloyd’s TBS in the United Kingdom). As Lina Saigol, a Financial Times columnist, has argued, this “new generation of gargantuan institutions [will have] the power to dictate the next financial boom and bust.” With the new injection of funds from governments, many banks have since turned their attention to attempts at buying each other out, and thus compounding the problems associated with market domination by too few players, rather than quickly getting back to the business of lending money to people in the business of making things for others.
In many cases the bailouts have became part nationalisations of the banks involved. This gives governments some additional influence over their practices, yet most politicians are currently cautious about what influence they exert, and act on issues like future executive pay, as the new announcement from the US illustrates. The irony of increasing government ownership of the banks, is that the tax payer may face a double whammy of their own. Not only have they bought up bad debts, but they have bought into potentially massive legal liabilities. In a comment in The Guardian, Nick Leeson, the trader who brought down Barings Bank in 1995, said: “For my role in the collapse of Barings I was pursued around the world, and ended up being sentenced to six and half years in a Singaporean jail. Who is going to go after the reckless individuals responsible for the financial catastrophe? Apparently no one”. However, there appears to be growing pressure to hold companies as well as individuals responsible for the global financial crisis. Regulators have announced the broadening of the investigations into the collapse of the subprime mortgage market to include Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers and AIG. In addition, many observers expect a sharp rise in shareholder lawsuits against investment banks and other financial institutions following the millions of dollars of losses they made by gambling money in asset-backed securities and the like. Law suits are emerging from Hong Kong to Paris to Rekjavik.
These actions slam the legal door after the capital horse has bolted. Rather than punishing the individuals who profited from using other people’s money to buy derivatives they did not fully understand, but knew could turn a profit in time for their next bonus, this legal action will cost the companies’ new owners, including the tax payer. First the bankers, then the lawyers, will have bled the collective purse. The sick irony of this is that many ex-bankers are getting in on the game: they are helping fund the lawyers to pursue claims against financial institutions for those who have lost their money. In doing so they aim to make a nice commission. They screwed the public purse once, and now will do it again, through taking a slice of payments paid out by their old employers. As this situation becomes visible to the general public, calls for the people who made millions from speculating with their money to replenish their depleted pension funds may grow. There could be investigation into whether there was abuse of fiduciary duty by those who received large bonuses through creating, investing, rating or trading in mortgage backed securities or credit-default swaps since the deregulation of those markets in 1999. Given the mobility of capital, such processes would require international cooperation, to freeze assets of those being investigated. If this happened, it would remind us of Interface CEO Ray Anderson, who said that people like him would in future be regarded as criminals for doing things that at the time they considered normal business. Letting bankers live as millionaires, some as billionaires, from creating a crisis that has emptied the pensions funds and now the coffers of government, would sadly stand as a testament to systemic injustices of contemporary societies. However, it is unlikely that governments will want to see such a wave of litigation. As such there may be growing calls for some form of ‘financial truth and reconciliation’ commission, to explore how this crisis developed, where fault lies, and how to repatriate some savings.
Those calls will grow louder in the coming months, with major activist mobilisations planned to call for financial justice before the G20 meeting in London. Obama was expecting a hero’s welcome at his first big meet up in London. But saving a few million in salaries in return for the trillions thrown at the financial sector, while millions of people lose their jobs? Salary caps aren’t the loose Change We Can Believe in. He will have to do more. Far more. As will the rest of the G20. They can start by endorsing a more legitimate and inclusive process to develop principles and rules for a new financial order, and coordinating a process to repatriate some funds from the pockets of the irresponsible bankers, some of whom now seek to even profit from the coming litigation.
- More analysis of the future of the financial system will appear in the next Lifeworth.com Annual Review of Responsible Enterprise, released at the end of the month.
- For a discussion of the corporate responsibility movement’s contribution to the future of capitalism see my new book http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/productdetail.kmod?productid=2767