Banking Pigs Back at the Trough
Sooey! With some of the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) government loans paid back, it appears that the malnourished pigs of the banking sector are hungry again and back at the trough for loftier pay packages. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out Goldman Sachs is on track to pay its employees $20 billion in 2009, almost double the compensation of 2008, and forking out even a higher average ($700,000 per employee) than 2007.
Beyond gluttonous appetites, these banking execs are attempting to make pigs fly as well. Like a magician using the art of illusion to move an object from one shell to the next, or divert attention with smoke and mirrors, these large Wall Street banks are shuffling around their compensation plans. A recent Bloomberg article noted that Citigroup Inc. is moving to raise base salaries by as much as 50% to help counterbalance reductions in annual bonuses. Citigroup is particularly in hot water because the U.S. bank received $45 billion in government fund assistance. According to the Wall Street Journal, similar trends are bubbling up at Zurich-based UBS, where executives raised banker base pay by 50%. Bank of America also said in March 2009 it may boost salaries as a percentage of total compensation. The banks are hoping that reducing bonuses tied to risky behavior, while raising salaries, will appease the regulators.
The governments “pay czar,” Kenneth Feinberg, may have something to say about these inflating compensation trends. The WSJ points out:
Feinberg will have the authority to regulate compensation for 175 executives at seven companies, including Citigroup, that received “exceptional” government help.
As a rule of thumb, securities firms generally pay out approximately 50% of revenue in employee compensation. Bonuses have traditionally made up about two-thirds of bankers’ total compensation. Compensation consultant Alan Johnson in New York says salaries typically range from $80,000 to $300,000, with bonuses often adding millions of dollars. The article goes onto highlight the five biggest Wall Street firms awarded their employees a record $39 billion of bonuses in 2007. Sparking some of this heated debate stems from the eye-popping bonuses paid out to Merrill employees before the Bank of America merger. Merrill Lynch emptied $14.8 billion out of its wallet for pay and benefits last year before it was acquired by Bank of America – the New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating $3.6 billion of the bonuses (tied mostly to payments made in December 2008).
To protect themselves, firms like Morgan Stanley and UBS have also added “clawback” provisions that allow portions of a worker’s bonus to be recouped under certain scenarios if the firms are harmed by an employee in the future. Perhaps this will create a disincentive for harmful behavior, but likely not enough to pacify the regulators
The pigs have regained their appetites and are eagerly awaiting for some more fixings at the trough. Time will tell if 2009 can produce squeals of swinish satisfaction or will regulators take the bankers to an unfortunate visit to the butchers?