"We all overhired during the boom years," Mack, who is now a senior advisor to KKR and a member of several boards, including the peer-to-peer Lending Club, told Matt Miller and Stephanie Ruhle. "I think it takes time to adjust and that's what they're doing."
When asked whether it was time to stop "beating up on" bank CEOs Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein for their lavish pay packages when many tech chiefs make millions more, Mack, who retired from Morgan Stanley in 2009, treaded carefully.
"I would love to see you stop beating up on Lloyd and Jamie," he said, but tech titans get little flak for their paychecks because "people see how technology's really changing their lives."
Asked about earlier comments from Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, that paying bankers well was crucial to competing in the marketplace for talent, Mack said that while debate over Wall Street pay was "healthy," and needed to take place, "the last time [he] checked, this business is still a business that pays people extremely well."
Here's an edited transcript of Mack's interview with Bloomberg TV:
MATT MILLER: I want to ask first about the Barclays news today. Because you had a similar experience when you went in to take over at Credit Suisse First Boston, you had to instantly let go of 10,000 employees. And here you see [Barclays CEO] Antony Jenkins doing the same, and a lot of analysts are saying that's not even enough. How difficult is that?
JOHN MACK: Well it's very difficult. I mean any time you're asking people to leave their job it's very difficult. At Credit Suisse the thing that made it, not easier, but made the decision a clear decision, was if you go back, they had just merged with [Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette]. And in that merger there were very few layoffs. I think the only layoffs that took place was in the division that Brady Dugan ran in the equity area.
So when you went in and you saw all the duplication and no one being, kind of saying, does it make sense? We put these two companies together, where are the synergies? So I'm not saying it was easy, but it was obvious. And that's what we did.
STEPHANIE RUHLE: John there was, as you're saying, much more fat in the system. When you look at Barclays laying off 10,000 people since 2008, that's all we've seen happen. Do you wonder who's left to fire? The business is about human capital.
MACK: Well it is, Stephanie, but at the same time you need to look at the volume of business. If you go back when the real craziness was going on, seven or eight years ago, we were hiring and busy and wanted to hire more people. Just look how many people were hired out of the colleges in the analyst programs. How many MBAs were hired out of the graduate schools?
The business has changed. There's ... less risk in the business. The mortgage business is half of what it used to be, maybe even smaller than that. You think about the global economy that gives you some insight there's opportunity. But we all overhired during the boom years, and I think it takes time to adjust and that's what they're doing.
RUHLE: How do you think banks keep talented people employed in areas like mortgages or leveraged finance, which are inherently risky businesses?
If I was the top talented structured products guy, why would I want to do it at a Morgan Stanley or a Credit Suisse?
MILLER: Instead of KKR?
MACK: Well the answer to me is it's all about the leadership of the company. And the message you send and the opportunities you give. If you treat people fairly, even though markets may be slow or even in some point, kind of stopped, people will stay. It's how you treat the people who work for you. And it's not just about money; it's a lot more than money.
MILLER: But it is about money and we did see Antony Jenkins as he's firing 10-12,000 people, he's still increasing the bonus pool by 10% because he says he's got to keep people there. Lloyd Blankfein talked to us about this. Listen to what he had to say.
LLOYD BLANKFEIN, CHAIRMAN, GOLDMAN SACHS: The earnings of an institution have to go to compensate labor for their services but also have to compensate the investors and give them a return on capital. And to the extent you have a higher capital requirement you're going to have to allocate more of your earnings to paying that. And so that's resulted in lower compensation. But you still have to compensate your people. It's still a market. We still have to compete in the marketplace for talent. And that's what we do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MILLER: So Goldman Sachs, obviously a different story than the earnings we saw out of Barclays, which were poor to say the least. But you've got this back and forth between Washington and Wall Street, between the public and Wall Street. What do you think about the compensation debate?
MACK: Well listen, it's a healthy debate and it needs to take place. It should take place almost every year because you need to look at it. But at the same time, if people talk about the cuts in compensation, the last time I checked, this business is still a business that pays people extremely well.
So if you're a young man or young woman coming out of graduate school or undergraduate school and you can get a job at one of these firms where you can learn a great deal, especially if you're an analyst, an analyst being a two-year program. And the money you're being paid, I think, is very competitive and probably more competitive than a lot of the industries that people go to work for.
RUHLE: Well then let's talk about CEO pay for a minute.
MACK: Well, number one, I would love to see you stop beating up on Lloyd and Jamie. I think that would make a lot of sense and I'm in favor of that. I think the names you just put up are kind of hot areas. It's technology. And people see how technology's really changing their lives. They also see how the stocks have performed in these companies and the returns they're making.
So we could argue is that too much or not too much? I guess clearly I would say it's something that needs to be talked about. And I think it is being discussed. But as long as shareholders reward performance, what these companies have delivered, we can argue is $10 million too much or $1 million too much?
RUHLE: But John, is it fair to say that technology changes people's lives? Doesn't banking? If it wasn't for banking fueling the American system, the economy, lending to small businesses, we couldn't get anything done.
MILLER: Not just America, right? All of society. I mean banking is really the keystone to growth.
RUHLE: But we just want to hate on it 24/7.
MACK: Well listen, during the go-go years, and this goes back pre-2008, there's no question that Wall Street was knocking the cover off the ball. And there's also no question because of competitive pressures and returns, I mean at Goldman Sachs a couple times their earnings were 35%-40% return on equity. At Morgan Stanley a couple quarters we were over 30%. When you're doing that kind of return for investors, I think you can justify some of these payments.
But at the same time, we have to be sensitive to what's going on in our economy. And I think that's the point you're trying to make, Stephanie. That you know we're making all these guys rich or richer, but how about those that are unemployed? How about those who are at minimum wage? And the debate is going on now about minimum wage. So I think for the first time, at least in my career, my retired career, it's clear we need to focus on the social issues and what does it do to the fabric of this country.
RUHLE: Do you think that Lending Club, that banks should pay attention? I mean what Lending Club is doing on some level are eating bankers' lunch and they don't even realize it.
MILLER: All of these companies are, right? All of these companies are eating into the profits that banks make. Even in their job as a utility.
But recently there was an article on either the front page of "The Journal" or "The FT" where Wells Fargo made a comment to their employees not to put money into the Lending Club system because it's hurting their business. So they're beginning to take notice of what's going on.
MILLER: All right, I've got to ask you quickly about China and commodities because you're an advisor to CIC [China's sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corp]; you're an advisor to Glencore on the board there. It seems like the bank businesses are getting hurt by commodities trading. There's concern about an emerging markets crisis. Concern about the Chinese economy. What's your view of that?
RUHLE: But Glencore never gets it wrong.
MACK: Well I don't know about that. They've got a great CEO in Ivan Glasenberg. Listen I think a lot of it's predicated on what's going to happen in China. So China hits their target of 7.5% growth, I'm really optimistic about the commodity business. If they're down at 5% I'm really concerned about the business.
MILLER: But that's the driver.
MACK: That's certainly is the driver on copper and some of the basic commodities, no question about it.
MILLER: How important is [what's on new Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen's mind]? I mean, you have the emerging markets complaining before, right? That our interest rates and QE were too low and that was ruining their capital flows, and now they're complaining that we're pulling back too quickly. How much do you think she pays attention to what you pay attention to?
MACK: Look I think she pays attention to that. At the end of the day, we need this country to grow. We need to create jobs. And the priority to me and I would hope to her and others, is to do that. So people are always going to complain they want more or they want a lot more. She has to do what's best for the United States and I think if the country does well, clearly get unemployment higher, we start buying more goods and services, a great many of them come from overseas, it helps other markets.
RUHLE: But does quantitative easing really help the economy?
So I think to keep rates low, to get this economy growing makes tremendous sense. I think one of the issues for us is about confidence. I don't think it's about interest rates. When you look what's going on, the debate that takes place in Washington, people are saying, wait a minute, which way are we going? We need clear direction.
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