So what were the regulators doing when the banks nearly
collapsed in 2008?
Many of our prejudices about the sort of people who become
bureaucrats, and how they spend their working hours, have been confirmed by an official
report that employees of the American Securities and Exchange Commission were
watching pornography at the time.
The received version is that the bank crisis was caused by
insufficient regulation. This is reflected in President Obama’s recent
proposals to increase state supervision of Wall Street.
Yet banking is already one of the most heavily regulated
sectors in business. The problem is that the calibre of the people who become
regulators is very low relative to the people they are supposed to be
regulating. The high salaries paid by the banks attract the brightest of the
bright, and the bonus system gives them a personal stake in the success of
their work. Fixed civil service salaries are attractive only to those without
the talent or desire to make more money on their own, and they have no financial incentive to go beyond the
bare minimum in their assignments.
Nevertheless, something still needs to be done to restore
responsibility to the banks. Regulation transfers responsibility to the
regulators when what we really need is for bankers to take personal responsibility
for the consequences of their actions.
So here is a far more effective solution than any amount of
regulation. The law of agency makes an employer legally responsible for the
actions of all employees. So a third party who suffers as a result of the
employees’ actions can sue the employer. Fair enough. However, it is very hard
for that employer to recover any losses from employees whose negligence or
incompetence caused those losses in the first place.
The law of agency should be changed to make it easier for
employers to sue negligent or incompetent employees. If those who perform well
get a “bonus”, it is only fair that those who are guilty of a gross dereliction
of duty should get a “minus”. In practice, this means that those who are fired
for cause would not walk away with the severance payments and pensions that
have caused such public outrage – and those who remain will be far more careful
than any regulation could ever make them.