I wrote earlier that we needed banks that idiots could manage and this meant that banks should not become too large or complex. The Economist carries a profile of a successful East European bank wherein the banker talks about the virtues of being small. The bank is Erste Bank,Austria's second biggest. Its CEO says banks should stay small because they can't attract the best talent, only mediocre people.
People who want to make a lot of money fast go to work in investment banks, but people who work in commercial banks are pretty average people," says Mr Treichl in an office so understated that it almost seems calculatedly so...."We should not think we can invent something brilliant. If we could we would be working somewhere else,"he says of the exotic credit derivatives that spread risk, like a contagion, through the financial system.
The banker also points to the difficulties in managing large banks, sprawled across several countries.
If you run something like Citi how the hell do you know what's going on in Poland if you only go there every three years?" he asks. "This is very much a people business. I need to touch and smell and feel what's going on."
Very true. But I would question the presumption that because investment banks attract brighter people, they can afford greater risks. If this were true, then Lehman, Bear and others would not have gone under. The problem is two fold. First, firms that are beyond the capability of even the brightest to manage because of their sheer size. Then, the problems of excess leverage, which create incentives to take excess risk that even the brightest are not immune to. Greed is not something that bright people are free from.