I ran across an interesting forum on economist.com that extends upon a post written by Arnold Kling at EconLog. The post examines the issue of compensation, particularly that of exorbitantly paid investment bankers clustered at the favorable tail of the income distribution. In light of these “rents” (economic parlance for what essentially amounts to excess payments), asks Dr. Kling, why aren’t there more investment bankers? I’ve sometimes wondered the same and Kling’s prompting has distilled my thinking on the subject.
Kling’s concludes that investment bankers enjoy continually high rents because would-be competitors simply have better things to do with their lives.
In short, the distribution of wealth represents differences in taste. Many people prefer jobs with less income and more of other characteristics.
I think that many people steer away from finance and accounting as a matter of taste. But people who choose different occupations are not all satisfied with simply making their own choice and letting other people make their choices. Just as there are people who believe that it is in bad taste to smoke or drive an SUV, there are people who believe that it is in bad taste to be an investment banker. And just as there are people who want to see government do something to punish smokers and SUV owners, there are people who want to see government punish those who choose high-income careers.
Though operative, this reasoning fails to fully explain why high salaries persist in IB. I’d argue one reason for the theory’s inadequacy resides in its acceptance of some flawed assumptions.
Assumption #1: IB Has Few Barriers to Entry
Kling offers that, outside of financial knowledge, there exist few barriers to entry in IB.
I can see how doctors earn rents–there are obvious barriers to entry. And the field of entertainment generates winner-take-all results, in part because being popular makes you more popular. But a lot of the big money is in finance–investment banking. One would expect more people to go into investment banking and compete away those rents.
I am pretty sure that all of my daughters could master finance if they wanted to. Both economic theory and my wife are telling them that they should major in accounting, but none of them will do so. I may be naive, but I suspect that there are a lot of people who could raise their incomes by going into investment banking. They are not prevented from doing so, but they choose other careers as a matter of taste.
My personal observation has been that IB is highly specialized and that there are often substantial barriers, specifically those of the type Kling characterizes as “obvious” in other professions. Take, for example, any of the go-to banks in biotechnology. Most biotech bankers have terminal degrees in their respective fields of science and some have stacked an M.D. on top of their doctoral training for good measure. Those lacking these credentials almost uniformly have extensive experience in industry; few, if any, land these jobs due to accounting prowess or dumb luck. These bankers aren’t paid high wages because they are financial wiz kids (if anything, the financials are simpler in this sector). Rather, they are highly paid because the basic knowledge required to effectively interact with clients creates a relatively high barrier to entry. Though I’m not as familiar with other IB sectors, I suspect this barrier isn’t limited to biotech, but extends to many capital intensive sectors, such as IT, where Dr. Kling has profitably operated.
Assumption #2: “Banking” is Homogenous
The first comment to Kling’s post (offered by KipEsquire, who has one of the most phenomenal descriptions of a professional life I’ve seen recently) correctly observes:
The term “investment banking as a career” is comparable to the terms “health care as a career” or “education as a career” — you are lumping together far too many and too varied occupations for your thesis to have any potency. (P.S. Yes I am an investment banker. No I am not in the top 1% of incomes. Go figure.)
Bingo. Like KipEsquire, I’m an “investment banker” who, to this point, has helped raise what amount to seed and VC rounds. Take 7% of what I place, deduct expenses, and I assure you there’s not a seven figure remnant in my firm’s bank account. Lumping the services I provide into the same pot as the fat cats who structure multi-billion dollar M&A transactions is akin to comparing a Ford to a Ferrari; they’re both cars, but the similarities end there. In an addendum, Kling accepts this criticism as valid. Assumption #3: Banking Isn’t Highly Competitive
Dr. Kling suggests that IB is a field in which qualified people can move in and out of the field unencumbered by competitive forces (again, note that Kling seemingly argues “qualified” refers to those who possess a mastery of finance, but in the interest of further exploring this idea, let’s also grant these candidates an M.D., Ph.D., or J.D.).
I may be naive, but I suspect that there are a lot of people who could raise their incomes by going into investment banking. They are not prevented from doing so, but they choose other careers as a matter of taste.
There is an entire cottage industry dedicated to helping people land IB jobs, the existence of which suggests a competitive market (go to amazon.com and search for “investment banking” and you’ll find dozens of career guides, at least one of which is in its 5th edition). I doubt such an industry exists for, let’s say, bank tellers.
An Alternate Explanation
On a personal level, people that have a head for financial services often don't go into investment banking at any more due several factors. Most end up becoming a financial planner managing personal assets for clients directly instead of working at large investment banks and banks in general. Investment bankers often need to have more in their background than just working at a large fund to make it on a more personal level interacting with clients. Such services as those provided a local houston area businesses like Celtic Capital Corporation often offer more than just investment advice but also legal counsel.
My answer to Kling’s question is admittedly pretty simplistic. At a fundamental level, I think there aren’t more investment bankers for any reason other than the fact that the world simply doesn’t need more of them. If Lehman Brothers or any other well-capitalized firm needed more bankers, they clearly have the resources to hire, train, and pay them exceedingly well. Simply put, banks don’t need more bankers, they need better ones. I’d argue the reasons for this are numerous, but include such things as the volatility of the industry (firms don’t want to hire several bankers only to lay them off a few months later).