A Modicum of Good News

>> Tuesday, January 27, 2009

NY Times; January 22, 2009; "Wall Street Paychecks May Wither":

Are financial workers overpaid? And if so, will it continue?

The answers, according to a new study by two economists, are yes, they are overpaid, and no, it will not last.

“Wages in finance were excessively high around 1930 and from the mid 1990s until 2006,” wrote Thomas Philippon of New York University and Ariell Reshef of the University of Virginia, in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released this week, “Wages and Human Capital in the U.S. Financial Industry, 1909-2006.”

They forecast that up to half the wage differential observed in recent years “can be expected to disappear.”
They won’t disappear overnight, of course. The sad story of how Merrill Lynch bosses handed out bonuses just before the Bank of America takeover was completed — and just before about $15 billion in losses materialized from Merrill’s portfolio — reinforces the suspicion that Wall Streeters see themselves as entitled to outsize paychecks even if their companies are failing.

But even in the Depression the adjustment took time. The professors calculate that relative financial wages, taking into account education and other demographic factors, declined sharply in the 1930s and then at a slower pace until about 1980, when there was virtually no difference. Then, in a new era of financial innovation, “The financial sector became once again a high-skill, high-wage industry,” Mr. Philippon wrote on the N.Y.U web site this week.

It may be no accident that New York City, the country’s financial capital, went broke in the 1970s as financial industry wages approached their low point. Nor is it surprising that Manhattan real estate prices soared in the 1990s and early in this decade, as multimillion-dollar Wall Street bonuses pushed up demand for high-end apartments. If relative wages are set to decline, the pain in New York could be greater than in other regions.

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