Friday, March 20, 2009

Why bonuses should not be curtailed in banks

There is a flurry of law-making activity in the US House of Representatives and in the US senate to impose upto 90% taxes on large bonus payouts to individuals. AIG's ill-timed bonuses have outraged the entire nation and have led lawmakers to to use this blunt blow to root out bonuses in all sick companies supported by taxpayer money. But the move is a populist one, and one that may have far deeper consequences than recovering a few hundred million in bonus money. I am afraid there is a lot to lose with this last minute decision of making a law limiting bonuses. The taxpayer will actually end up loosing much more in the long run.

In many companies bonuses are given across the organization to all employees. A bonus for a good quarter, a bonus for Christmas, etc. But in knowledge-intensive fields bonuses are disproportionately distributed and given a small subset of employees who create exceptional (significantly over the average) value for the company. Knowledge-intensive fields include finance and banking where a talented person can create a lot more value than another lesser talented person. The distinction between employees is easily measurable in banks (earned profits) and therefore banks can easily reward better-performing employees. The reason for the reward is the hope is that a better performing employee can be retained in the company if she is paid a bonus.

A modern bank's success is almost wholly dependent on its employees. Banks are no longer armies of clerks following a rule book and doing the same thing every single day. Instead, banks are participating in a very sophisticated knowledge-based global game where bankers make decisions on how to invest their depositor's money. They employ some of the brightest minds to compete with other bright minds of other financial institutions, all of them trying to maximize returns on invested money. Quite naturally, the financial institution with the most creative, innovative, smart, and industrious people will take it all away.

Not all minds are equal. Hence all bankers cannot be paid the same income. Its a mind game, and intellect is not equal across the board in every employee (perhaps unfortunately, but certainly by natural design). Bankers are men and women like the rest of us. They will gravitate to financial institutions which pay better. By removing the bonus incentive for bright people in ailing financial institutions we are clearly reducing the chances of these institutions recovering taxpayer money as the brightest will leave or be less motivated.

Bonuses have been wrongly maligned in this whole saga. They are one of the best tools to improve worker productivity, commitment, and a company's bottom line.

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