Big bank bonuses are back

Associated Press

NEW YORK — The fat cats were supposed to get their comeuppance.

After Wall Street’s most prominent firms — by their own admission — helped cause the 2008 financial meltdown and got bailed out by the government, they were supposed to stop handing out million-dollar bonuses to their employees. No one was supposed to get seven- and eight-figure rewards, not after the Great Recession left one in 10 Americans unemployed. Not after President Barack Obama — who on Thursday called such pay “obscene” — had promised to clamp down on lavish bonuses.

It turns out little actually changed.

Americans will see that starting today when JPMorgan Chase &Co. releases its 2009 financial results. The other big banks will follow. The messages will be the same: compensation is at near-record levels.

The form of the pay is changing. Instead of cash, bonuses will be paid mostly in stock that can’t be redeemed for years. But the numbers are still staggering. Together, the six biggest U.S. banks are on pace to pay $150 billion in total compensation for 2009, slightly less than the record $164 billion in 2007 before the financial crisis struck, according to the New York state comptroller’s office.

How this happened is complicated, like most things involving Wall Street and Washington. It involves a remarkable financial turnaround by the banks, but one that was fueled by the federal bailout. It shows the power of the financial lobby. And it highlights the age-old debate about how much U.S. companies need to pay to retain talented bankers and traders.

Scott Talbott of the Financial Services Roundtable says keeping those workers from going to overseas firms is critical.

“The market will find a way to pay these people what they’re worth,” says Talbott, who is chief lobbyist for the industry group representing some of the largest financial firms. “This is not a giant talent pool. There’s only a few people who can catch a touchdown in the Super Bowl.”

But others aren’t so sure most Americans buy that. Says Douglas Elliott, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former investment banker, referring to the government’s bailout money: “The way the general public sees it is that we wrote a $700 billion check to the banks, and they got to burn through it as they pleased.”

Here’s a look at how the clamor for reform ended up the way so many previous efforts did — with the triumph, for now, of Wall Street’s bonus culture. And a look at what may lay ahead.

The bailout

The government played a big role in the compensation bonanza by bailing the banks out.

In the days after the financial meltdown, banks were given access to cheap government loans and other federal subsidies. Since the banks weren’t required to put that money toward lending to businesses and consumers, they could use it as they pleased.

Many bet on risky securities that paid off when the financial markets surged. The result: Big profits and big bonuses because pay on Wall Street is tied to performance.

Profit at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. nearly doubled to $8.4 billion during the first nine months of 2009 from the previous year’s level, and analysts expect its full year profits to top $10 billion.

Lobbying machine.

Bonus outrage and the momentum to do something about it peaked last February when crippled insurer American International Group Inc. moved to pay $165 million in bonuses to hundreds of employees in the same financial unit that brought down the company. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called Wall Street pay “out of whack” and vowed to rein in the practice.

The fact it didn’t happen speaks to the industry’s powerful lobbying machine, which is spending millions to fight a raft of financial reform measures, including proposals to tax or limit lavish pay packages.

What’s next

Washington is now scrambling to get something done to temper the populist anger. The financial lobby still could block those efforts.

The Obama administration is proposing a 10-year tax on the country’s largest banks to cover a projected $117 billion shortfall in the government’s bailout fund.

The Federal Reserve is reviewing a plan that would give it more oversight on compensation by reviewing pay practices at thousands of banks. The central bank would be able to veto pay plans if it found them to encourage excessive risk-taking by executives, traders or loan officers.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which regulates most of the nation’s banks, is seeking public input on a plan that would tie the fees that banks pay for deposit insurance to how much a company’s compensation plan encourages workers to take risks in order to achieve higher returns.