Big banks paid billions in bonuses to traders & bankers amid Wall St crisis


Nine of the financial firms that were among the largest recipients of federal bailout money paid about 5,000 of their traders and bankers bonuses of more than $1 million apiece for 2008, according to a report released Thursday by Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York attorney general.

At Goldman Sachs, for example, bonuses of more than $1 million went to 953 traders and bankers, and Morgan Stanley awarded seven-figure bonuses to 428 employees. Even at weaker banks like Citigroup and Bank of America, million-dollar awards were distributed to hundreds of workers. The report is certain to intensify the growing debate over how, and how much, Wall Street bankers should be paid.

In January, President Obama called financial institutions “shameful” for giving themselves nearly $20 billion in bonuses as the economy was faltering and the government was spending billions to bail out financial institutions.

On Friday, the House of Representatives may vote on a bill that would order bank regulators to restrict “inappropriate or imprudently risky” pay packages at larger banks.

Fear of attrition

Otherwise, the thinking goes, top workers could easily leave for another firm that would reward them more directly for their personal contribution. Many banks partly base their bonuses on overall results, but Cuomo has said they should do so to a greater degree.

At Morgan Stanley, for example, compensation last year was more than seven times as large as the bank’s profit. In 2004 and 2005, when the stock markets were doing well, Morgan Stanley spent only two times its profits on compensation. Though it has been known for months that billions of dollars were spent on bonuses last year, it was unclear whether that money was spread widely or concentrated among a few workers.

Subset of industry

The report suggests that those roughly 5,000 people — a small subset of the industry — accounted for more than $5 billion in bonuses. At Goldman, just 200 people collectively were paid nearly $1 billion in total, and at Morgan Stanley, $577 million was shared by 101 people. All told, the bonus pools at the nine banks that received bailout money was $32.6 billion, while those banks lost $81 billion. Some compensation experts questioned whether the bonuses should have been paid at all while the banks were receiving government aid. The report does not include certain other highly paid employees, like brokers who are paid on commission. The report also does not include some bank subsidiaries, like the Phibro commodities trading unit at Citigroup, where one trader stands to collect $100 million for his work last year.

Now that most banks are making money again, hefty bonuses will probably be even more common this year. And many banks have increased salaries among highly paid workers so that they will not depend as heavily on bonuses.

Banks typically do not disclose compensation figures beyond their total compensation expenses and the amounts paid to top five highly paid executives, but they turned over information on their bonus pools to a House committee and to Mr. Cuomo after the bailout last year.

The last few years provide a “virtual laboratory” to test whether bankers’ pay moved in line with bank performance, Mr. Cuomo said. If it did, he said, the pay levels would have dropped off in 2007 and 2008 as bank profits fell.

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