THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wall Street Makes Merry With Other People's Money

There's a good deal of jolliness on Wall Street this holiday season, thanks to the billions of dollars in bonuses that will be stuffed into the stockings of your favorite bankers.

It's safe to assume that the final tally will be big, very big. After all, in 2008, a year of disaster for the financial sector, Wall Street still managed to dole out an estimated $18 billion in cash bonuses to New York's least needy. This turned out to be the sixth best bonus year in Wall Street history -- a much better performance than the rest of the seething country might have anticipated.

"Executive pay is like sugar. If you consume too much of it, you get a rush. And then you crave it. It becomes an addiction," said Vineeta Anand, Chief Research Analyst for the AFL-CIO Office of Investment.

This year, with a much healthier stock market, the rush is on. Bankers will likely be stampeding to the tree on Christmas morning. Johnson Associates, a respected New York compensation consulting firm, expects a 40 percent increase in "year-end incentives" at investment and commercial banks. (Johnson forecasts lower bonuses for other financial types, including the much-beloved hedge fund managers.)

And not everybody will be getting exactly what they want. Instead of piles of cash, Goldman Sachs is rewarding its top executives with millions and millions of dollars in stock. While the country hasn't exactly collapsed in awe and gratitude, this was certainly a more successful PR gambit than CEO Lloyd Blankfein's recent assertion that the firm was "doing God's work."

A recent lawsuit filed against the Wall Street Goliath by a pension fund maintains that the Almighty had nothing with the year-end stock bonanza. Instead, the suit credits a "trillion-dollar investment made by the American taxpayers that was meant to stabilize the financial industry" and not the "hard work of the executives."

Goldman speedily paid off the cash it borrowed from the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program. Real and threatened federal restrictions on executive pay have proved to be a stupendous incentive in getting the banks to pay back their government loans. Citigroup and Wells Fargo are the latest financial firms to raise cash to pay off the loans that place them under the jurisdiction of U.S. pay czar Ken Feinberg.

"We've gotten $90 billion back for the taxpayer in an accelerated fashion. I'd also like to think we've developed some guiding principles for compensation that will be followed voluntarily by Wall Street," Feinberg told HuffPost.

Whether Wall Street has learned a lesson is highly debatable. Even basket case AIG -- the insurance giant that remains under Feinberg's jurisdiction -- seems intent on maintaining the tradition of irrational exuberance when it comes to executive pay.

AIG's justification is always that it needs to make big payouts to keep critical talent. John Cassano, the head of AIG Financial Products, resigned after sending his firm down an $85 billion rat hole of red ink. But he was allowed to keep $34 million in bonuses, and put on a million-dollar-a-month retainer. The firm's then-CEO said AIG "wanted to retain the 20-year knowledge that Mr. Cassano had."

Cassano is finally gone but AIG is paying still more bonuses to members of his old unit, under the theory that they're the only ones who know how to unravel the complicated messes that their boss left behind.

And AIG has extended the theory far beyond people with very specialized knowledge who are going to be employed for a short period of time. Robert Benmosche, who came out of retirement to be the post-disaster CEO, strongly believes that a man's worth can be measured very precisely by the amount he is paid. And he threatened to resign if Feinberg didn't back down in his attempts to drastically cap salaries and bonuses.

Feinberg did backtrack -- reportedly following lobbying from government officials who worried about that fabled brain drain. The people who run big Wall Street firms are convinced that the top financial jobs can only be done by a tiny handful of very special people, who must be wooed and re-wooed every year with obscene amounts of money.

Failure to do so will mean they'll take their services elsewhere. This has always been an article of faith on Wall Street, but not everybody agrees.

"I think that in many cases Wall Street would be better off without these executives," said Nell Minow, co-founder of the Corporate Library, an independent research firm that specializes in executive pay and corporate governance.

"Corporate America has really lost the battle if the best argument it can make is that if executives are not paid what they want, they'll take their bat and ball and go home," Minow added.

She said the retention incentives in executive compensation pay packages should be much more closely linked to performance: "Too many of these retention incentives are what we call 'pay for pulse.' It's stick-around money."

Minow noted that some companies are now calling bonuses "discretionary pay" (like, maybe we won't notice) while others juggle cash or stock payments to conceal bonuses. Last year, for example, Wells Fargo got around a big cash bonus for CEO John Stumpf by boosting his base salary from $900,000 to $5.6 million.

No matter how you slice it, it's still a bonus. And once the gifts under this year's Christmas tree have been carted away, the firms who made it through the last year on the backs of the taxpayers are going to have to explain exactly what it is that their executives do to make them worth so much more than the rest of humanity.