Only $600,000 a Year

Posted Nov. 20, 2008, at 5:15 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:28 a.m.

It sounded voluntary and generous when the top executives of Goldman Sachs announced that they would give up their usual bonuses this year. Actually, it wasn’t so voluntary, and it wasn’t so generous. They still get their $600,000 base pay. And Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein can keep his $68.5 million in total 2007 compensation.

A Goldman Sachs spokesman said: “They believe it’s the right thing to do.” He added, “We can’t ignore the fact that we are part of an industry that’s associated with ongoing economic distress.” In Britain, where restrictions on compensation are stricter, the Daily Mail said Goldman’s huge bonuses for its London brokers earned it the nickname “Golden Sacks.”

Goldman, as well as executives of other companies who are also giving up this year’s bonuses, has been up against heavy pressure because they were accepting cash from the U.S. Treasury. (Goldman is getting an injection of $10 billion, part of the $700 billion Congress voted for the financial bailout.) New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, have warned banks not to use taxpayer money for bonuses and have asked for detailed information from the largest banks about their compensation structures.

Maine’s Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, added to the pressure by saying in a statement that she was “deeply frustrated by Wall Street’s plan to distribute billions of dollars” in pay and bonuses.

But the top executive bonuses are only part of the story. The banks are not required to disclose compensation below the top level. Goldman’s 443 partners were slated for bonuses averaging $4.5 million, although reduced earnings may cause the company to reduce the payouts. Even the bankers at the defunct Lehman Bros. are scheduled to share a $1.5 billion bonus pool.

The main excuse for lower-level bonuses is that they may keep the employees from fleeing to firms that pay better.

Read the fine print in the Federal Register and you will see how loose and inadequate are the compensation limits in Treasury Department rules under the bailout law. They cover only the chief executive officer, the chief financial officer and the three other highest-paid executives. Huge termination payments known as “golden parachutes” are prohibited. But bonus limits apply only to incentive payments for taking “unnecessary and excessive risks that threaten the value of the financial institution.”

That language describes the risk-taking, driven by greed and bonuses, that permeated the financial industry and helped bring on the present crisis.

If this Congress doesn’t tighten the rules, the new Congress should. And the National Commission on Financial Regulation Reform envisaged in Sen. Susan Collins’ newly proposed bill should put compensation limits high on its agenda.

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