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Austerity and the Modern Banker

WASHINGTON, DC – Santa Claus came early this year for four former executives of Washington Mutual (WaMu), a large US bank that failed in fall 2008. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) had brought a lawsuit against the four, actions that included taking huge financial risks while “knowing that the real estate market was in a ‘bubble.’” The FDIC sought to recover $900 million, but the executives have just settled for $64 million, almost all of which will be paid by their insurers; their out-of-pockets costs are estimated at just $400,000.

To be sure, the executives lost their jobs and now must drop claims for additional compensation. But, according to the FDIC, the four still earned more than $95 million from January 2005 through September 2008. So they are walking away with a great deal of cash. This is what happens when financial executives are compensated for “return on equity” unadjusted for risk. The executives get the upside when things go well; when the downside risks materialize, they lose nothing (or close to it).

At the same time, their actions – and similar actions by other bankers – are directly responsible for both the run-up in housing prices and the damaging collapse that followed. That collapse has impacted non-bankers in many negative ways, including through the loss of more than eight million jobs.

It is also leading to austerity – taxes are increasing and government spending is falling at the local and state level around the country. A difficult fiscal conversation still lies ahead at the federal level, but cuts and contractions of various types seem likely.