Youssef Cassis

 

On his book Crises and Opportunities: The Shaping of Modern Finance

Cover Interview of August 08, 2011

A close-up

How far have bankers been held responsible for the outbreak of financial crises?  Charles Baring, the first Lord Revelstoke, the firm’s senior partner, took the brunt of the Baring Crisis in 1890.  He was blamed by his brother for his “insatiate vanity and extravagance.”  He was liable for his entire fortune and he lost it.  His house in Mayfair and his country estate in Devon had to be sold.  Charles Barney, the President of the Knickerbocker Trust in New York, which suspended payment in October 1907 and triggered a financial panic, committed suicide a month later.

Wall Street’s leading bankers and financiers were pilloried during the Peccora investigation in 1933.  To give but a single example: the total pay package of Charles Mitchell, the Citibank’s president, was revealed to exceed $1 million in 1929, when his basic salary was $25,000. Interestingly, questions were raised about “the propriety of permitting executives to share to such an extent the net earnings of financial institutions without having to bear any part of the losses,” and about the risk of a “lack of care in the handling and sale of securities to the public.”

Wall Street as a whole paid a heavy price for the crash, the banking crises and the depression—in terms of loss of prestige and loss of political influence.  Banks and bankers were tamed for a generation.  The contrast with 2008 is striking.

Responsibility cannot be entirely separated from ownership and control.  Banks were the first companies, alongside railways, where ownership was separated from control—in the early to mid-nineteenth century. And yet big business in the financial world has never entirely freed itself from the dominance of private interests.

Private bankers remained highly influential in the world’s two leading financial centers—the City of London, with the merchant banks, and Wall Street, with the investment banks. The financial elite then made money with its own capital.

Merchant banks and investments banks remained partnerships until the 1960s.  However, their conversion into public companies did not entirely eradicate some aspects of the partnership form of organization, especially earnings and professional status, which have persisted in the governance of the world’s leading banks, including the large universal banks into which some of them have been integrated.

On a far greater scale than ever before, top salaried executives and star traders have been able to enjoy a level of remuneration previously only attained by private bankers risking their own capital.  That this state of affaires contributed to the financial debacle of 2007-2008 cannot seriously be doubted.