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Goldman’s bonus bonanza

Scott Jagow Oct 13, 2009

How does $789,000 sound to you? That’s how much the average Goldman Sachs employee can expect to make this year. The bank is reportedly planning to hand out $23 billion worth of bonuses, by far the most in its history. It might also donate 1/23 of that amount to charity.

From a New York Times column by Andrew Ross Sorkin:

So should we be upset about the bonuses? Is this a problem? Viscerally, it can be infuriating to watch Goldman executives gobble up piles of money, especially when the government — an overused euphemism for taxpayers — had helped support the firm. It hasn’t been forgotten that the government gave Goldman $10 billion in bailout cash — which it has since returned and said it never needed. And don’t forget the cheap financing it now gets as a bank holding company.

But we can’t have it both ways, either. At one moment, many in the nation crossed their fingers hoping Goldman and the rest of Wall Street would be saved to halt the country’s downward spiral. But when the banks finally get up on their feet, we want them to fall flat again. (Goldman CEO Lloyd) Blankfein can’t win.

Please. But let’s put Blankfein aside. No matter what you think of it, he’s running a business, which is to make as much money as possible and pay the “best” people to make more of it. No, what we should focus on is the aforementioned euphemism.

The government’s precedent of bailouts and subsequent failure to break up TBTF banks creates the tension that taxpayers must care about Goldman’s bonuses, as much as we’d prefer not to. Reuters blogger Felix Salmon (emphasis mine):

It’s entirely conceivable that if Goldman started paying its bankers less money, the firm as a whole might become less profitable. From a public-policy point of view, that’s fine: the nation has no particular interest in Goldman making spectacular amounts of money every quarter. From a philosophical point of view, there’s a bit of a problem with artificial restraints on trade, but that’s something which goes hand in hand with too-big-to-fail status. If you’re a small investment-banking boutique, feel free to pay your people as much as you like. But if you have a trillion-dollar balance sheet and pose a major systemic risk to the economy, then you lose that freedom.

Because of the tension this creates with the public, Goldman has been saying all the right things about avoiding risk and having better regulation. Apparently, the bank also wants to give $1 billion to charity. Sounds like an obvious PR ploy, but fine. It’s still a billion dollars for charity.

It should also be noted that much of Goldman’s bonus compensation will be paid in stock, and there could be a clawback provision to get some of it back if trades go awry. That’s the right kind of incentive. But to pay a record level of bonuses this year is a tough sell to those who, as I said earlier, are forced to care about this.

Tonight on Marketplace, our New York reporter Jeremy Hobson looked at whether it’s a valid argument that banks must pay these bonuses or their people will leave (in this job market). And whether Goldman’s generosity is creating a vicious cycle where other banks feel compelled to keep up. Here’s what headhunter Danny Sarch told Jeremy:

DANNY SARCH: I think it’s wrong to just make a blanket statement that Wall Street is bad and should not make this much money, without an appreciation of how much money that they’re making for their shareholders and the other people which Wall Street is supposed to make money for.

Which would be fine except for one glaring problem: the taxpayers made it possible. The government sold the idea that the banks had to be rescued to protect the broader economy from complete failure. Even if that were true, and it may well be, that doesn’t mean the public is going to accept that Goldman can afford to pay record bonuses this year while official unemployment continues to go higher.

Until the government demands the TBTF ties be broken, and that no company gets a free pass because it’s so systemically connected, then Sorkin has it wrong.

It’s the taxpayer who can’t win.

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