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CONTRIBUTION · 10th September 2011
Alexander Pietralla
Amongst the thousands of self acclaimed WWW economists and the millions of Monday morning Football coaches, there are the few exceptions, the beacons of knowledge that stand out so much, that one can always find guidance in times of misinformation and confusion. Enjoy Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and his view on the financial markets.

The Great Bank Robbery

For the American economy – and for many other developed economies – the elephant in the room is the amount of money paid to bankers over the last five years. In the United States, the sum stands at an astounding $2.2 trillion. Extrapolating over the coming decade, the numbers would approach $5 trillion, an amount vastly larger than what both President Barack Obama’s administration and his Republican opponents seem willing to cut from further government deficits.

That $5 trillion dollars is not money invested in building roads, schools and other long-term projects, but is directly transferred from the American economy to the personal accounts of bank executives and employees. Such transfers represent as cunning a tax on everyone else as one can imagine. It feels quite iniquitous that bankers, having helped cause today’s financial and economic troubles, are the only class that is not suffering from them – and in many cases are actually benefiting.
Mainstream megabanks are puzzling in many respects. It is (now) no secret that they have operated so far as large sophisticated compensation schemes, masking probabilities of low-risk, high-impact “Black Swan” events and benefiting from the free backstop of implicit public guarantees. Excessive leverage, rather than skills, can be seen as the source of their resulting profits, which then flow disproportionately to employees, and of their sometimes-massive losses, which are borne by shareholders and taxpayers.

In other words, banks take risks, get paid for the upside, and then transfer the downside to shareholders, taxpayers, and even retirees. In order to rescue the banking system, the Federal Reserve, for example, put interest rates at artificially low levels; as was disclosed recently, it also has provided secret loans of $1.2 trillion to banks. The main effect so far has been to help bankers generate bonuses (rather than attract borrowers) by hiding exposures.

Taxpayers end up paying for these exposures, as do retirees and others who rely on returns from their savings. Moreover, low-interest-rate policies transfer inflation risk to all savers – and to future generations. Perhaps the greatest insult to taxpayers, then, is that bankers’ compensation last year was back at its pre-crisis level.

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb is Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University and the author of The Black Swan. Mark Spitznagel is a hedge-fund manager. For more, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Spitznagel, Project Syndicate