Did Bank CEO Compensation Cause the Financial Crisis?

Earlier this summer, the House of Representatives approved legislation intended to, as Rep. Frank, put it, “rein in compensation practices that encourage excessive risk-taking at the expense of companies, shareholders, employees, and ultimately the American taxpayer.”

While there are real and legitimate concerns over CEOs using bailout funds to reward themselves and give their employees bonuses, Washington has operated on the premise that excessive risk-taking by bank CEOs, due to mis-aligned incentives, caused, or at least contributed to, the financial crisis.  But does this assertion stand up to close examination, or are we just seeing Congress trying to re-direct the public anger over bailouts away from itself and toward corporations?

As it turns out, a recent research paper by Professors Fahlenbrach (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) and Rene M. Stulz (Ohio State) conclude that “There is no evidence that banks with CEOs whose incentives were better aligned with the interests of their shareholders performed better during the crisis and some evidence that these banks actually performed worse…”

Professors Fahlenbrach and Stulz also find that “banks where CEOs had better incentives in terms of the dollar value of their stake in their bank performed significantly worse than banks where CEOs had poorer incentives.  Stock options had no adverse impact on bank performance during the crisis.”  While clearly many of the bank CEOs made bad bets that cost themselves and their shareholders, the data suggests that CEOs took these bets because they believed they would be profitable for the shareholders.

Of course what might be ex ante profitable for CEOs and bank shareholders might come at the expense of taxpayers.  The solution then is not to further align bank CEOs with the shareholders, since both appear all too happy to gamble at the public expense, but to limit the ability of government to bailout these banks when their bets don’t pay off.