Two Modes of Investment Banking: Technocrats, Relationship Managers, and Conflict

Efficient capital allocation in a market economy depends on the exchange of reliable information between providers of capital and companies that seek to put capital to work. One challenge, however, is that information exchange is at most only partly subject to verification and contractual arrangements.  Take the case of securities issuance, including IPOs; whereas issuers of the new securities have incentives to overstate their prospects to attract higher bids, prospective investors have incentives to understate their interest. In principle, the counterparties could enter into an agreement that would prevent or discourage misrepresentations by both sides, but failure to perform would be very costly, if not impossible, for a court to verify. 

Investment banks have traditionally addressed this problem by creating extra-legal markets for information whose functioning depends on the reputations of the banks for upholding the interests of both their corporate clients and the providers of capital. But committing to strike the right balance among all of the parties’ interests means that relational investment bankers inevitably face conflicts of interest. The authors of this article argue that such bankers exist to absorb and to manage conflicts of interest in financial markets—and that they do so by exercising judgment in ways that support their reputation for fair dealing. 

Modern full-service investment banks, when addressing such conflicts, combine, or braid, such relational functions with technocratic banking activities involving the use of technical skills with advanced information technology. In so doing, however, technocratic bankers substitute formal contracts for the informal judgment exercised by relational bankers; and as a result, they are less dependent on their banks’ reputations for fair dealing. Moreover, technocratic bankers often have powerful incentives to pursue a personal reputation by executing complex transactions that demonstrate their skill, even at the expense of their clients and the bank’s reputation for fair dealing.

Well-governed braided banks can benefit from complementarities between relational and technocratic skills. Nevertheless, full-service banks continue to struggle with governance problems. The authors discuss several market responses to these struggles, such as the growing use of boutique banks offering “unconflicted” sell-side advice in mergers and acquisitions and securities offerings. But the authors view such responses as at most a first step toward achieving a new understanding of the extent of the challenge facing today’s investment banks in carrying out their economic function of bringing together and balancing the interests of companies and their investors.