Executive Pay

At Our Financial Summit, No Need to Fret

Newly victorious lawmakers have wasted no time rushing to show they really do care — about keeping Wall Streeters lavishly rewarded.

By Sam Pizzigati

All in all, not a bad week for Wall Street. On last Tuesday, voters gave friends of high finance a lock grip over the U.S. House of Representatives. On Thursday, a top Wall Street pay analyst announced that overall annual financial industry take-home, despite America’s continuing hard times, is once again rising.

So why so little exuberance last week in the canyons of Wall Street? Apparently, not all power suits this year are sharing in that rising pay wave.

Hedge fund managers, private equity wheeler-dealers, and bankers who handle the accounts of rich families are looking at pay boosts in 2010 that run between 5 and 15 percent over last year. But bank traders who spend their days betting with their bank’s own money are looking at earnings down over 15 percent.

At Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs, trading dips have helped drop the bank’s total compensation 26 percent so far this year.

And that has Spencer Bachus worried. Bachus, a Republican member of Congress from Alabama, ran unopposed for re-election last week. He’ll likely now become the next chair of the House Finance Committee — and he’s already started flexing his chairman-to-be muscles.

On Wednesday, Bachus sent a missive to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, the panel with final say over the rules that will implement the financial reform Congress passed earlier this year. The letter told the Council to back off any tough limits on how much speculative trading investment banks can engage in.

Such limits, Bachus charged, could “hurt shareholders of the banks” as these banks find themselves forced “to divest from profitable lines of businesses.”

Those bank shareholders whose future so worries Bachus include Wall Street’s mightiest movers and shakers, execs like Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. CEO Blankfein currently holds Goldman shares worth $396.9 million.

Last year, Blankfein pocketed a mere $9 million in bonus, just a fraction of the $68.5 million he took home in 2007. Company-wide, the average pay for the 35,400 employees of Goldman Sachs has dropped to $387,655 for the first nine months of 2010, down from $527,192 for the first nine months of 2009.

Numbers this huge — at a time of national economic crisis — tend to strike most Americans, if not Rep. Bachus, as just another sorry sign that our economy has gone completely crazy. Our political system, too: With millions of Americans hurting, after all, what’s a powerful member of Congress doing throwing his weight around trying to protect America’s most privileged?

signupPoliticos like Bachus have an answer. The rich rewards at America’s economic summit, they argue, supply the grease that keeps our economy going. Any step that puts these rewards in jeopardy, the Bachus letter last week to the Financial Stability Oversight Council warned, risks a “mass exodus” of U.S. jobs overseas.

Bachus and his newly victorious GOP friends in Congress have plenty of incentives to see things that way. Wall Streeters have spent the last year shifting their campaign contributions. In 2008, 75 percent of financial industry campaign cash went to Democrats. This year, 56 percent has gone to Republicans.

These incentives conveniently cloud the actual historical record. America’s economy has functioned just fine in the past — without any Wall Street windfalls.

The 20th century’s middle decades, for instance, saw America’s greatest ever years of middle class prosperity. Wall Streeters in those years, even the most prominent of them, took home relatively modest earnings.

Last month, in a New Yorker analysis, author Malcolm Gladwell offered a fascinating glimpse at just how modest. In the mid 1950s, Gladwell relates, Goldman Sachs chief exec Sidney Weinberg spent two years coordinating the stock offering that took the Ford Motor Company public.

By its 1956 completion, Gladwell notes, that huge stock offering would rate as “far and away the biggest initial public offering in history.” For his two years labor on that deal, Goldman Sachs chief Weinberg collected a $250,000 fee, the equivalent of just over $2 million in today’s dollars.

Some modern perspective for that figure: Weinberg’s contemporary counterpart at Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, took home $122.8 million in the two years before Wall Street crashed the U.S. economy in 2008.

Pay for Blankfein and other high-finance CEOs, Wall Street compensation expert Alan Johnson forecast last week, appears headed back to those pre-crash levels.

“I did not expect compensation would come back the way it has,” Johnson told the New York Times. “I underestimated the industry’s resiliency.”

And political might.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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