Virtually everybody who butters their own bread is outraged that Wall Street, which is becoming a de facto government agency thanks to billions in bailout money, found $18.4 billion in bonuses for bankers who nearly wrecked the world’s financial system in 2008. President Obama’s criticism – “shameful” – is mild compared to what many of us think.
The bankers are bellyaching about a 44 percent decline in bonuses from 2007 levels. That’s like complaining about being served a 40-ounce porterhouse instead of a 70-ounce one.
Here’s a bit more perspective: Charles Payne, CEO of the research firm Wall Street Strategies, points out that in 1985, Wall Street bonuses totalled $1.9 billion. The average recipient got $13,970. Since 1985, inflation has run 97 percent in total, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means that something worth $1 in 1985 would be worth $1.97 today. So follow the math:
Wall Street bonus pool in 1985: $1.9 billion
Value in 2008, if indexed for inflation: $3.75 billion
Actual 2008 bonus pool: $18.4 billion
Amount by which bonus pool exceeded inflation: 490 percent
Average Wall Street bonus, 1985: $13,970
Value in 2008, if indexed for inflation: $27,580
Actual average bonus, 2008: $112,000
Amount by which average bonus exceeded inflation: 406 percent
So pay for top Wall Streeters has risen 4 to 5 times as much as the rate of inflation since 1985. Of course those bankers are worth it, because of all the great things they’ve done for America during that time, like engineer the Long-Term Capital Management meltdown in 1998, the tech bubble that burst in 2001, the housing bubble that’s still bursting, a credit freeze that’s producing hypothermia at hundreds of real companies that actually make stuff, and the near collapse of the financial markets.
If there’s a crowning absurdity, it’s that Wall Street mustered any bonuses at all in a year when the industry lost $34 billion. Does anybody else in America get a bonus when their company tanks? “Rewarding cataclysmic failure like this has to be what led to the fall of the Roman Empire,” Payne wrote in a recent note to clients.
It’s worth pointing out that not all Wall Street firms are as wayward as big offenders like Citigroup (C), Merrill Lynch (MER), AIG (AIG), and Bank of America (BAC). Many made money in 2008, and any firm that isn’t asking for taxpayer handouts should be allowed to pay its people whatever it wants.
But the bonus brouhaha reveals so many disconnects in the financial industry that it could end up being a pivotal moment in the dismantling of the old Wall Street. Derivatives and “funding facilities” are hard for most people to understand. But gimme gimme gimme is a corruption we all understand. If the politicians didn’t have a clear rallying cry for going after Wall Street before, they sure do now.