Why Finance Stuck Up like a Sore Thumb

I’m reminded of a ‘lively debate’ with a friend. Last time I used to think that there’s something wrong about finance people getting such unseemly salaries because their products are intangible. To her credit, she’s right to say that it doesn’t mean one has to expend some kind of tangible effort to be of value. But I was only using a wrong term. What I was truly concerned with is value-creation, not tangibility.

My friend was right to point out that the incongruence between tangible effort and pay is driven by supply and demand, that in the labour market, the supply of unskilled worker (tangible effort) outnumbered that of skilled ones (intangible effort). But she has yet to address the fact that why should people in the financial sector be paid more than people in the industrial sector when both are skilled professions. A possible way of reconciling this is that an even higher level of skill that is even scarcer is required in finance. But this seems too much like ego-stroking to me.

Intuitively, R&D would be the more mind-boggling foray compared to say, finance and we know top researchers aren’t pay the way financial elites are.

Another factor that I can think of is because the financial world wants to ensure that they will always retain the best of skilled workers and ‘the industry’ is not falling for the bidding game. Given that there are still skilled workers in ‘industry’, this suggests that there is another attracting factor that is non-financial and that is, none other than the intrinsic part of industrial jobs.

I somehow find it a contradiction in terms when people say they have an intrinsic passion for finance and they’re not superficial. Sure they could have a passion for the math in finance but it’s not a tool exclusive to finance. Economists can boasts of a more fundamental passion for economics. This tends to suggest that the basic motivation is none other than the extrinsic aspect of the job, a euphemism for superficiality.

I don’t even have to go through this line of reasoning to convince people that those who wanted to go into finance is probably more extrinsically motivated kind of person. Just ask a friend in finance why they were doing it.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being superficial apart from the mild annoyance when they indulge in self-emulation by virtue of their higher pay. But being motivated by financial rewards only is likely to result in ethical consideration being sidelined as long as it is within the legal framework (not to mention the perpetuation of superficiality in this already superficial hell). And as we all know, law is not a perfect guide to ethics. Sure one may argue that the impact of some unethical behavior is negligible and thus justified under certain circumstances. But such thinking is symptomatic of the whole ‘looking at the tree instead of the forest’ thinking. The result lies not in the individual but the cumulative effects of individual behaviors.

Of course, there are those who will adopt a ‘who cares’ stance and just pray that there will always be ethical idiots out there to be the‘normalizing’ force. But a word of caution, everything is about balance. People are sensitive to the existence of a collective balance. Once the balance is tipped, chaos will ensue to restore the balance.

True, it might seemed that technically there’s no right or wrong. But what makes us feel morally obligated are actions that are directed towards a sustainable balance. As much as an individual feels powerless against changing the world but one must remember that the individual makes up the collective world. If everyone were to adopt this mentality, everyone’s self-interest will be served ultimately.

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One Response to Why Finance Stuck Up like a Sore Thumb

  1. Supplements to the argument:-
    Intuitively, R&D would be the more mind-boggling foray compared to say, finance and we know top researchers aren’t pay the way financial elites are.

    I think this has a lot to do with the returns-to-investment as well, of the level of risk/turnover of returns to the nature of each job. Say, for example, a fund manager (managing a portfolio of stocks) versus that of a cancer researcher. Both involves professional skills of a certain degree. Let’s assume the fund manager’s goal is to be a value investor and to ensure her portfolio’s returns are consistently more than 30%, and for the cancer researcher, she needs to, say, research on a certain way to curb the development of a certain cancer.

    The nature of the fund manager’s job allows her performance to be evaluated on a short-term basis (eg you can see how her portfolio performs in a year, two years, five, etc) versus that of the cancer researcher’s (eg ok, how do we measure breakthroughs? Do we need one year? Two years? Five years? etc). Sometimes, in the case of the cancer researcher, you might not even find a significant result in a year or two, but in five or ten years. Perhaps it is human tendency to want results quick – hence, the almost constant need to justify one’s research (and the importance of continuous funding), etc.

    So, question is, who’s the intangible one here? Value-creation is also another troublesome word, because people might consider the appreciation of the fund manager’s portfolio as value, versus the promise of a cancer prevention thingamajic (that might not manifest/’deadline-less’).

    This is my supplement/point no. 1 😉 Allow me to dissect this blog entry further before adding to it.

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