With Goldman Sachs employees on track for their best bonus year ever, the investment bank's executives have been making the case that their bounty is good for all of us. "We contribute to growth," CEO Lloyd Blankfein said at a breakfast put on by FORTUNE. "Once the economy starts to turn, we get very involved." In a discussion about morality and markets at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, Goldman Sachs International vice chairman Brian Griffiths, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, described giant paychecks for bankers as an economic necessity. "We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all," he said.
From his perch on the ultra-posh side of the income distribution, Griffiths sounded piggish. But is there anything to his statement? Will big profits and bonuses at Wall Street firms really bring greater prosperity and opportunity for all?
Let's just say the evidence is mixed. There's lots of research showing that the economies of countries with vibrant financial sectors grow faster than those of countries without them. So banks and financial markets do enable prosperity. But as we emerge (we hope) from a deep economic downturn brought on by a banking and financial crisis, that's not enough of an answer. We need to know whether the financial sector's profits, and its paychecks, can leave the rest of us worse off. In other words, are bankers worth it?
Until recently, economists had done shockingly little work in this area. "Nobody had looked at the flip side, which is, Can there be costs?" says Thomas Philippon, a young Frenchman who teaches finance at New York University's Stern School of Business. "That is because it's harder to measure, and it's a bit more controversial." Philippon has begun trying to fill this research gap, and while he hasn't come up with definitive answers, he has made some very interesting discoveries.
If there were a simple correlation between financial-sector growth and economic growth, Philippon reasons, finance's share of the economy would stay constant. But when he examined data back to 1860, he found that finance's share of GDP varied widely. It ballooned in the late 19th century, shrank, ballooned again in the 1920s, shrank and stayed low for decades, then began to grow again in the 1970s, reaching unprecedented levels earlier this decade. The measure Philippon uses is the economic value added of the financial sector as a percentage of GDP, which was at about 4% in the 1960s and hit almost 8% in 2006. An easier-to-understand metric financial-sector profits as a share of overall corporate profits followed an even more dramatic trajectory, from 12% in the mid-1960s to almost 41% in 2002.
The 1960s were by most measures the best decade ever for growth and widening prosperity in the U.S.; the past decade has been a bust. Yet the financial sector was relatively tiny in the 1960s and huge in the 2000s. Could this mean that good times for finance are bad for the rest of us? Philippon says it isn't that simple. The 1990s, for example, were good for both Wall Street and Main Street. His theory, which fits the historical evidence well, is that the financial sector's share of the economy should increase when there are fast-growing companies needing outside funding, like railroads in the late 19th century, manufacturers in the 1920s and tech firms in the 1990s. If financing wasn't in great demand in the booming 1960s, perhaps that was a warning sign of stagnation to come rather than evidence of the uselessness of financiers.
Over the past decade, though, reality took a detour from Philippon's theory. Corporate America's need for outside financing fell, but the financial sector refused to shrink; it pumped out ever riskier products until the system nearly collapsed. Why the refusal? Maybe the pay was too good. Philippon and the University of Virginia's Ariell Reshef have found that, starting in the mid-1980s, financial-sector paychecks began to outstrip those for jobs in other sectors demanding similar skills and education levels. Since the late 1990s, Philippon and Reshef estimate, 30% to 50% of financial-sector pay has amounted to what economists call rents windfalls that serve no economic purpose. They may even hurt the economy by pulling highly skilled workers out of other, potentially more productive fields.
So we'd probably be better off with a smaller, less-well-remunerated financial industry than the one we've had. Exactly how much smaller? "I've done what I could, but it's not like I've found the right formula, that finance should be 6.65% of GDP," jokes Philippon. As for Blankfein and Griffiths, they clearly need to come up with a better formula for defending their paychecks.