Warren Buffett has famously said that:
It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.
One of several truths captured in this maxim is that when things are going well, we hear all sorts of interpretations that project glory onto the swimmer.
In that vein, you often hear in professions that dole out high compensation that the pay is a reflection of education, skill, hard work, and scarcity of talent. It’s interesting how often an equally or more compelling story can be told that comes down to a market failure resulting from information opacity and asymmetries, that can be cured, as I have explained in prior posts.
In Buffet’s terms, while the tide is in, the waves prevent us from disputing the truth of self-congratulatory explanations, because they obscure our vantage point as to where the value is generated, whether in market failures or the market actors. The waves in what I am talking are the opacity and crimps in information flow.
As an important example, let’s talk about bond trading at investment banks. As the New York Times reports:
Bond traders have long defined Wall Street’s swagger and, in good years, generated a major share of its profits. Now, though, an upheaval is taking place in the bond business that is wiping out billions in profits and thousands of jobs.Wall Street banks like JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse managed to keep their grip on the bond market in recent years, amassing huge inventories of bonds for clients and trading them mostly in private over-the-phone transactions.
But tighter regulations being enacted this year and new electronic trading technology being rushed to market are threatening to permanently constrain this bastion of big bonuses and risk-taking.
“It was a rock solid kind of career not too long ago,” said Lou Ricci, a co-founder of The Hagan-Ricci Group, a head-hunting firm. “You give me a really good bond trader right now, I probably can’t find them a job.”
The opaque waves have receded with the better information flow enabled by electronic markets, so that the market is not reliant on a few people stockpiling information and transmitting it only via phone calls. As a result:
Analysts expect that the changes ahead will largely mirror what happened to stock trading a decade ago, when a combination of regulations and new technology transformed buying and selling stocks into a more automated business. That shift reduced staffing levels by 35 percent and compensation by 45 percent, according to recent research..
So the “value” came from the tight hold over the information, rather than the virtues of the bond traders. This is a cautionary tale for professions and an opportunity for others.