The Real Problem With High Wall Street Pay

Sometimes an interesting paper doesn’t do much more than provide empirical confirmation of what basic theory would predict. For example, Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef have a paper (PDF) illustrating the point that the relative wage in the financial sector tends to track the relative education level of the personnel:

We use detailed information about wages, education and occupations to shed light on the evolution of the U.S. financial sector over the past century. We uncover a set of new, interrelated stylized facts: financial jobs were relatively skill intensive, complex, and highly paid until the 1930s and after the 1980s, but not in the interim period. We investigate the determinants of this evolution and find that financial deregulation and corporate activities linked to IPOs and credit risk increase the demand for skills in financial jobs. Computers and information technology play a more limited role. Our analysis also shows that wages in finance were excessively high around 1930 and from the mid 1990s until 2006. For the recent period we estimate that rents accounted for 30% to 50% of the wage differential between the financial sector and the rest of the private sector.

As Ryan Avent points out, there’s a reasonable case to be made that this is actually the Wall Street compensation issue we should be worried about:

Officials in Washington scrutinising the pay packages of TARP recipients are primarily focused on the incentive effects of those pay structures — whether financial pay packages are inducing financial employees to take excessive risks. But the bigger incentive problem may be — almost certainly is — the drain of talent from other fields, into finance. If there were more evidence that this drain was producing significant net benefits for the economy, than there would be less cause to worry. To an increasing number of people, it looks as though the financial sector is recruiting the nation’s best brains and putting them to work endangering the global economy.


Imagine a world in which being the owner of one of these telephone psychic scam operations discovered that high-skill fake-psychics could produce more earnings than a low-skill fake-psychic. He might start recruiting more people from top schools. And other firms would notice that this one guy moving up the skill chain was producing benefits, and begin doing the same himself. Over time, competition between firms would drive compensation in the psychic sector up and a greater-and-greater share of the high-skill workforce would start draining out of other fields and into psychic work. This would, in turn, seem likely to create a less productive economy over time. Some people would be arguing that the high wages in the psychic sector are, as such, proof that the psychics are generating social value. But nobody looks at the actually existing psychic industry and infers from the fact that psychics are able to earn income that psychics possess real ability to forecast the future. Rather, we recall that as Larry Summers famously argued “there are idiots”.