Stephen Foley: The bankers who couldn't stop dancing

Click to follow
The Independent Online

US Outlook: If a quote distils the essence of the credit crisis, it is the one from the hapless Chuck Prince, chief executive of Citigroup, just weeks before the mortgage market began hurtling toward the basement in 2007. "When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance. We're still dancing."

Bouncers escorted Mr Prince from the nightclub six months later, but we get an opportunity to hear more from him next week, when he is called before the Credit Crisis Inquiry Commission, the US body looking for lessons from the financial chaos. No doubt his quote will be thrown back at him more than a few times, but let's hope it is in the spirit of intelligent debate.

After all, what Mr Prince was saying was quite instructive. You've "got to" get up and dance. We know a lot about the greed of individual bankers, tempted to recklessness by the size of bonuses on offer. But we hear a lot less about the fear of executives at companies like Citigroup, UBS and Merrill Lynch, who jumped belatedly into the business of mortgage derivatives after seeing their swifter rivals raking it in.

Once a quarter, the heads of investment banks put themselves up for judgement by investors, comparing results to see who's up and who's down in the fight for market share on Wall Street. Don't discount the fear of falling behind, the fear of being ousted by shareholders angry that their investment is falling behind.

It is all very well aligning bankers' bonuses to the long-term consequences of their bets, and clawing back cash if they turn sour, but can we also talk about how to lengthen shareholders' time horizons, too?