A hedge funder is making noise about bringing down the salaries of executives at Morgan Stanley. Good. The government sure hasn't been successful at holding down corporate executive salaries, so maybe the market should work its magic—let hedge funds squeeze a few extra percentage points of profit in return for holding down the paychecks of the bosses of the banks they invest in. A worthwhile deal for the public. And a vindication of capitalism's mythical self-regulatory powers!
Of course, in order for big activist investors to go to all the trouble of harassing banks enough that they get their shit together, big activist investors will first have to invest in banks. And, for the most part, they don't want to. Why? Because, as this excellent new Atlantic story by Frank Partnoy and Jesse Eisinger shows in painstaking detail, the information that banks provide about their own financial situation is widely assumed to be untrustworthy.
Some four years after the crisis, big banks' shares remain depressed. Even after a run-up in the price of bank stocks this fall, many remain below "book value," which means that the banks are worth less than the stated value of the assets on their books. This indicates that investors don't believe the stated value, or don't believe the banks will be profitable in the future-or both. Several financial executives told us that they see the large banks as "complete black boxes," and have no interest in investing in their stocks. A chief executive of one of the nation's largest financial institutions told us that he regularly hears from investors that the banks are "uninvestable," a Wall Street neologism for "untouchable."
No big deal, just the planet Earth's most powerful financial institutions (which were recently bailed out by you and me and your mama) are considered by the most sophisticated investors in America to be so opaque in their dealings that the risk they pose is not worth their profit potential. Anything could be going on inside banks, in other words, and there's no real way to tell from the outside. Until they collapse, and come back to you, and me, and your mama, with their hands out. In the meantime, if they're doing well, they'll continue paying their executives huge sums.
Banks despise regulation, yet they expect to be rescued by the public when their bets go bad. This is a simple explanation of why "Too Big to Fail" financial institutions are now and will forever be bloodsuckers on the American public, until they are properly regulated. It seems insane that our legislators have not corrected this oversight, until you consider the fact that money buys legislative power in our political system, and the fact that banks have all the money. Then it makes perfect sense.
In the meantime, "wages have fallen to a record low as a share of America's gross domestic product," meaning that all of America's gains in productivity have helped out you, and me, and your mama not at all. Workers see no gains; investors, and executives, and bankers funnel all the gains to themselves. Until things go wrong, and the workers are asked to bail out the bankers again. It's not that complicated. It's a ripoff.
This is why they invented socialism.