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May 16, 2005

Alamedia of "Unfogged" Is Puzzled by Investment Banker Compensation Levels

She writes:

Unfogged: The Mysteries of Chet: I have here a special, economics-type query which I direct to Brad DeLong, among others. Here's the thing: I have known many investment bankers in my day. Hell, I'm related to plenty of investment bankers, even if only by marriage. Many of these men are stand-up guys, fun to be with, always up for smoking a few bowls and playing golf. Others are asshole blowhards....

All of them, however, have the same basic character type, which I will call 'Chet'. Chet is a hail-fellow-well-met sort, cracking jokes all the time (some of most of which may be 'politically incorrect', because he doesn't care about things like that). Chet is tall, probably tan, and has big white teeth like a mouthful of chiclets.... Chet is a member of country clubs, and has a thin wife, and two adorable kids, etc. etc. If you close your eyes and imagine a picture in a silver frame on an end table in an apartment on 84th and Park, then you know what Chet's kids look like (super cute!).

Finally, Chet has an incredibly high opinion of himself. He is confident to the point of arrogance, but friendly, outgoing. There is one thing Chet is not, ever, in my experience, and that is particularly bright. Really. Not an intellectual powerhouse, is where I'm going with this. Not, in all likelihood, able to perform complex mathematical operations. Given that this is so, I have a few questions:

  1. Is the role of these guys just to schmooze clients for their banks?... [A]re there wonky types behind the scenes, making the actual money decisions? Strangely enough, I take it that there are not, otherwise there would be all these rich, but wonky, investment bankers. As far as I know, there aren't any.
  2. So let us say that my sucessful Chet friends at Lazard Freres and whatnot are actually deciding stuff about money. The question is, why them given that they aren't the brightest bulbs on the chandelier? (But can be perfectly nice!)
  3. Is this a market failure caused by suceeding generations of Chets selecting other Chets?... [C]ould someone clean up by having a bank with a front office of Chets and a back office of Brad DeLongs? But maybe the colossal failure of LTCM, one of the only times I ever heard of anyone trying to have smart people who knew about economics in charge of a hedge fund, has scared people off Brad DeLongs and back into the welcoming, hearty hug/back-slap combo of Chet?
  4. If it's not a market failure, and Chets do just as well as brainiac PhD's in Economics at making decisions about hellishly complex derivatives, then is the whole thing just random?...
  5. Why do they all have to be irritating Republicans who are convinced there is some very real sense in which they have earned a multi-million-dollar bonus, when it's so clear to anyone that they cannot possibly, ever, have done enough work to 'deserve' all that money (which is not to say that you can't structure a semi-sucessful company on this basis). It's so very tedious of them. Oh well, they're probably less-overpaid than Fortune 500 CEO's, I'll give them that.

There are a lot of investment bankers who are not "Chets" and who are very smart as I define smart: my brother's bosses Frank Brosens and Ken Brody; Robert Rubin and Roger Altman; the late Fischer Black. Read Emmanuel Derman's My Life as a Quant to get the idea of what life is like for the very antithesis of Chet-hood.

But there are a lot of investment bankers who are "Chets." Indeed, a very smart quant like Emmanuel Derman is (from one point of view) a Chet-enabler: he constructs models and writes programs so that the Chets can, with three keystrokes, know what they have to charge their clients in order to make money for the firm. So Alameida's question is a good one: why are the Chets paid so much?

Part of the answer is that they are sitting at a nexus: a huge amount of money blows past Wall Street, and if you can sit in the right place with a large net, unbelievable quantities of money will be trapped by it.

A bigger part of this answer is that there are four relevant human capabilities here: the ability to master details, the ability to quickly grasp what the salient issues are and follow them through to their conclusion, the ability to work like a dog, and the ability to size up people--figure out quickly who will actually produce something useful and who will not, who will hang tough and who will easily bid more, who will soften if wooed and who will stay hard-nosed. Next to nobody has all four or even three of these capabilities in world-class measure. Fewer people than you think have even two. And for someone who has one of the other three--mastery of detail or skill at analysis or the ability to work like a dog for ungodly periods of time--mastery of Chet-hood is a very valuable and lucrative skill.

Consider Felix Rohatyn, running the auction of RJR-Nabsico in the 1980s. Rohatyn tells the bidding syndicates that there will be only one round--that they will have no opportunity to rethink their bids and raise them, so that they had better choose their bids carefully. The competing syndicates bid. Rohatyn says, "Thank you." And then:

the board, Atkins said, was willing to give Kohlberg Kravis one final opportunity to bid. "If you haven't already done so, this is the time to put in your best bid."

Silence.

Kravis and Roberts were too startled to speak. Beattie and Cogut exchanged a glance of amazement. *One final bid? Hadn't they been through this five hours ago?*

Felix Rohatyn's voice filled the void: "This is a serious offer. You should do your best to respond to it." Then, looking Kravis square in the eye, Rohatyn said: "We want your highest and last offer."

"This is the craziest thing I've ever seen," Kravis said. "We gave it to you five hours ago!"

A half hour later, Beattie and Cogut emerged from the aquarium room.... Kohlberg Kravis has two conditions before it will place its final bid on the table....

Kravis went around the room one last time. What should we bid?... Fifty cents a share too much or too little could be the difference. Already the bidding had reached heights all but the foolhardy were uncomfortable with.... The verdict seemed unanimous. They would throw in one last raise, just fifty cents a share in cash, roughly $115 million. "Is everybody comfortable with that?" Roberts asked....

"No, I'm not." The voice was Jamie Greene's.... "I don't know if we should do it at all" Greene said. "But if we do, let's do it with a dollar in cash. We've come this far. We want to win this deal."

"I think he's right," Roberts said. "That's exactly what we should do. We've gone this far. We've made up our minds we want to own this company. Let's not get shortsighted now."...

From Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (1990), Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR-Nabisco (New York: HarperCollins).

By being Chets--knowing when to push and when not to, and how far KKR could be pushed--Felix Rohatyn and company gained their clients an extra $230 million dollars with fifteen minutes' worth of work. You need people who know what the big things that affect fundamental values are. You need people who know how the details of contract provisions interact. And you need Chets--lots and lots of Chets--if you're going to squeeze anything like the best prices out of your counterparties. As Rohatyn did with KKR. KKR made a fortune, but it and its backers took on a huge amount of risk in doing so. Rohatyn made his clients a fortune, and did so by shedding risk rather than bearing it.

As to why the ones whom Alameida knows are all Republicans who believe that they generally deserve all their wealth. It is very annoying, but it's inevitable given what humans are: all our successes are due to our skills and industry, and all our failures are do to bad luck, right? (And there are a bunch I know--not a majority of those I know, but a bunch--who are Democrats, in a plurality of cases because being told once a year that you were slaves to Pharoah in Mizraim influences how you think about a whole bunch of issues.)

Posted by DeLong at May 16, 2005 01:54 PM