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No curbs on Wall Street pay despite meltdown

Despite the Wall Street meltdown, the biggest banks are preparing to pay their workers as much as last year or more, including bonuses tied to personal and company performance.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Despite the Wall Street meltdown, the nation’s biggest banks are preparing to pay their workers as much as last year or more, including bonuses tied to personal and company performance.

So far this year, nine of the largest U.S. banks, including some that have cut thousands of jobs, have seen total costs for salaries, benefits and bonuses grow by an average of 3 percent from a year ago, according to an Associated Press review.

“Taxpayers have lost their life savings, and now they are being asked to bail out corporations,” New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said of the AP findings. “It’s adding insult to injury to continue to pay outsized bonuses and exorbitant compensation.”

Banks will decide what to pay out in bonuses in the coming months. Just because they’ve been accruing money for incentive pay doesn’t mean they will pay it out in full.

That there is a rise in pay, or at least not a pronounced dropoff, from 2007 is surprising because many of the same companies were doing some of their best business ever, at least in the first half of last year. In 2008, each quarter has been weaker than the last.

“There are, of course, expectations that the payouts should be going down,” David Schmidt, a senior compensation consultant at James F. Reda & Associates. “But we haven’t seen that show up yet.”

Some banks are setting aside large amounts. At Citigroup, which has cut 23,000 jobs this year amid the crisis, pay expenses for the first nine months of this year came to $25.9 billion, 4 percent more than the same period last year.

Even if you subtract what the bank has shelled out in severance pay and other costs related to the job cuts, overall pay is only slightly lower this year.

Typically, about 60 percent of Wall Street pay goes to salary and benefits, while about 40 percent goes to end-of-the-year cash and stock bonuses that hinge on performance, both for the individual and the company, said Brad Hintz, a securities industry analyst at Sanford Bernstein and a former chief financial officer at Lehman Brothers.

“The fundamental goal of the compensation plan is to allow an employee to get wealthy,” Hintz said. He also pointed out that the workers’ pay is supposed to be “exposed to the risk of the parent company.”

This should be the year where that structure is tested. The financial crisis, brought about by mountains of bad mortgage-related assets, caused banks to falter or fail and lending to dry up and prompted Congress to pass a $700 billion bailout package. As part of that, government is pouring $125 billion through stock purchases into the nine large financial companies cited in AP’s review of compensation.

Besides Citigroup, those include Bank of New York Mellon, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo & Co., and State Street. Another $125 billion will be made available to other banks.

Those taking cash from Uncle Sam must follow guidelines limiting executive pay, including a ban on golden parachutes for departing executives. No restrictions are placed on across-the-board pay.

In total, those nine banks had pay-related costs of $108 billion for the first three quarters of the year. The average increase came to just shy of 3 percent, according to AP figures.

Some banks have set aside less.

Merrill Lynch’s costs for pay were $11.2 billion for the first nine months of the year, 3 percent less than last year. That nearly matches the company’s $11.7 billion overall loss so far this year.

Merrill spokesman William Halldin told the AP that the company thought a better measure would be to compare the 2008 compensation expense with the first three quarters of 2006. That would reflect an 18 percent decline from Merrill’s last profitable year, he said.

Bank of New York Mellon sharply curtailed its bonus expenses in the third quarter. That cost was $242 million for the three months, down 30 percent from the second quarter and off 37 percent from last year. Spokesman Ron Gruendl said the decline was “due to operating results and a reaction to the current market environment.”

But at the same time, the bank’s total compensation cost has climbed 44 percent to nearly $4 billion because of higher salaries.

If companies decide to reduce bonuses, that could be a boon to the banks’ finances because that would help the bottom line, said Jack Ciesielski, who writes the financial newsletter The Analyst’s Accounting Observer.

Already, lawmakers are doing all they can to shame the banks out of paying anything. House Financial Service Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., has called for a freeze on all Wall Street bonuses. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., wrote this week to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson saying it was “unacceptable for financial institutions ... to maintain past levels of compensation.”

On Wednesday, insurer American International Group agreed to freeze payouts from a $600 million bonus pool and compensation packages for the company’s chief executive and chief financial officers, as well as cancel unnecessary corporate trips and junkets.

AIG, which is not part of the AP review of bank compensation costs, has received government loans topping $120 billion to keep it from collapse. Cuomo calls it a “test case” for stopping unfair pay.

Certainly, workers are uneasy about whether the bonus money will really come. Many traders, bankers and financial advisers have received little or no word about how big their bonuses might be, or whether they will come at all.