Don't Hang The DJ-- Hang The Banksters
The big Wall Street banks have already taken defensive measures to protect themselves from physical attack... on the off-chance that the American people ever figure out that they're the real enemy of our families and our prospects for prosperity. But this weekend the NY Times reported that the big banks are girding themselves for trouble as they prepare to hand out the mega-bonuses again.
The bank bonus season, that annual rite of big money and bigger egos, begins in earnest this week, and it looks as if it will be one of the largest and most controversial blowouts the industry has ever seen.
Bank executives are grappling with a question that exasperates, even infuriates, many recession-weary Americans: Just how big should their paydays be? Despite calls for restraint from Washington and a chafed public, resurgent banks are preparing to pay out bonuses that rival those of the boom years. The haul, in cash and stock, will run into many billions of dollars.
Industry executives acknowledge that the numbers being tossed around-- six-, seven- and even eight-figure sums for some chief executives and top producers-- will probably stun the many Americans still hurting from the financial collapse and ensuing Great Recession.
I tweeted about this yesterday and someone who follows my tweets suggested that the blame belongs with the politicians, rather than with the banksters. The politicians do, after all, enable them-- when the price is right. But taking that logic a short step further, why not blame the voters? After all, it's the voters who enable to politicians-- and our payoff is just psychic and rarely very satisfying.
When I was in a position to hand out substantial bonuses, I made sure the assistants who did so much of the work, got a substantial piece of the action. And I bet there are an awful lot of assistants at GoldmanSachs who are making considerably less than the company average of nearly 600,000/per employee. (Imagine how some poor schlub at JPMorganChase feels; they only average $463,000 in bonuses.) So just imagine what the dozen guys at the tippy-top of the pyramid (scheme) are taking home. A couple making over $10,000,000? You better believe it!
Many executives are bracing for more scrutiny of pay from Washington, as well as from officials like Andrew M. Cuomo, the attorney general of New York, who last year demanded that banks disclose details about their bonus payments. Some bankers worry that the United States, like Britain, might create an extra tax on bank bonuses, and Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, is proposing legislation to do so.
Those worries aside, few banks are taking immediate steps to reduce bonuses substantially. Instead, Wall Street is confronting a dilemma of riches: How to wrap its eye-popping paychecks in a mantle of moderation. Because of the potential blowback, some major banks are adjusting their pay practices, paring or even eliminating some cash bonuses in favor of stock awards and reducing the portion of their revenue earmarked for pay.
...Even some industry veterans warn that such paydays could further tarnish the financial industry’s sullied reputation. John S. Reed, a founder of Citigroup, said Wall Street would not fully regain the public’s trust until banks scaled back bonuses for good-- something that, to many, seems a distant prospect.
“There is nothing I’ve seen that gives me the slightest feeling that these people have learned anything from the crisis,” Mr. Reed said. “They just don’t get it. They are off in a different world.”
In his column yesterday, Frank Rich posited that "Americans must be told the full story of how Wall Street gamed and inflated the housing bubble, made out like bandits, and then left millions of households in ruin. Without that reckoning, there will be no public clamor for serious reform of a financial system that was as cunningly breached as airline security at the Amsterdam airport. And without reform, another massive attack on our economic security is guaranteed." No one-- not the banksters and not the politicians-- are especially worried. They've got the system gamed and-- as you may have noticed-- there's no consequences at all, not only not legal consequences; there aren't even market consequences, at least not for the guys on top. Rich is hoping Phil Angelides and his Pecora-style commission will come up with something-- but Rich is too savvy to trick himself into believing it.
Angelides, the former California treasurer who is the inquiry’s chairman, told me in interviews late last year that he has been busy deploying a tough investigative staff and will not allow the proceedings to devolve into a typical blue-ribbon Beltway exercise in toothless bloviation.
He wants to examine the financial sector’s “greed, stupidity, hubris and outright corruption”-- from traders on the ground to the board room. “It’s important that we deliver new information,” he said.
“We can’t just rehash what we’ve known to date.” He understands that if he fails to make news or to tell the story in a way that is comprehensible and compelling enough to arouse Americans to demand action, Wall Street and Washington will both keep moving on, unchallenged and unchastened.
Angelides gets it. But he has a tough act to follow: Ferdinand Pecora, the legendary prosecutor who served as chief counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the 1929 crash as F.D.R. took office. Pecora was a master of detail and drama. He riveted America even without the aid of television. His investigation led to indictments, jail sentences and, ultimately, key New Deal reforms-- the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Glass-Steagall Act, designed to prevent the formation of banks too big to fail.
As it happened, a major Pecora target was the chief executive of National City Bank, the institution that would grow up to be Citigroup. Among other transgressions, National City had repackaged bad Latin American debt as new securities that it then sold to easily suckered investors during the frenzied 1920s boom. Once disaster struck, the bank’s executives helped themselves to millions of dollars in interest-free loans. Yet their own employees had to keep ponying up salary deductions for decimated National City stock purchased at a heady precrash price.
Trade bad Latin American debt for bad mortgage debt, and you have a partial portrait of Citigroup at the height of the housing bubble. The reckless Citi executives of our day may not have given themselves interest-free loans, but they often walked away with the short-term, illusionary profits while their employees were left with shredded jobs and 401(k)’s. Among those Citi executives was Robert Rubin, who, as the Clinton Treasury secretary, helped repeal the last vestiges of Glass-Steagall after years of Wall Street assault. Somewhere Pecora is turning in his grave.
Rubin has never apologized, let alone been held accountable. But he’s hardly alone. Even after all the country has gone through, the titans who fueled the bubble are heedless. In last Sunday’s Times, Sandy Weill, the former chief executive who built Citigroup (and recruited Rubin to its ranks), gave a remarkable interview to Katrina Brooker blaming his own hand-picked successor, Charles Prince, for his bank’s implosion. Weill said he preferred to be remembered for his philanthropy. Good luck with that.
Among his causes is Carnegie Hall, where he is chairman of the board. To see how far American capitalism has fallen, contrast Weill with the giant who built Carnegie Hall. Not only is Andrew Carnegie remembered for far more epic and generous philanthropy than Weill’s-- some 1,600 public libraries, just for starters-- but also for creating a steel empire that actually helped build America’s industrial infrastructure in the late 19th century. At Citi, Weill built little more than a bloated gambling casino. As Paul Volcker, the regrettably powerless chairman of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said recently, there is not “one shred of neutral evidence” that any financial innovation of the past 20 years has led to economic growth. Citi, that “innovative” banking supermarket, destroyed far more wealth than Weill can or will ever give away.
Even now — despite its near-death experience, despite the departures of Weill, Prince and Rubin-- Citi remains as imperious as it was before 9/15. Its current chairman, Richard Parsons, was one of three executives (along with Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and John Mack of Morgan Stanley) who failed to show up at the mid-December White House meeting where President Obama implored bankers to increase lending. (The trio blamed fog for forcing them to participate by speakerphone, but the weather hadn’t grounded their peers or Amtrak.) Last week, ABC World News was also stiffed by Citi, which refused to answer questions about its latest round of outrageous credit card rate increases and instead e-mailed a statement blaming its customers for “not paying back their loans.” This from a bank that still owes taxpayers $25 billion of its $45 billion handout!
If Citi, among the most egregious of Wall Street reprobates, feels it can get away with business as usual, it’s because it fears no retribution. And it got more good news last week. Now that Chris Dodd is vacating the Senate, his chairmanship of the Banking Committee may fall next year to Tim Johnson of South Dakota, home to Citi’s credit card operation. Johnson was the only Senate Democrat to vote against Congress’s recent bill policing credit card abuses.
Though bad history shows every sign of repeating itself on Wall Street, it will take a near-miracle for Angelides to repeat Pecora’s triumph. Our zoo of financial skullduggery is far more complex, with many more moving pieces, than that of the 1920s. The new inquiry does have subpoena power, but its entire budget, a mere $8 million, doesn’t even match the lobbying expenditures for just three banks (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) in the first nine months of 2009. The firms under scrutiny can pay for as many lawyers as they need to stall between now and Dec. 15, deadline day for the commission’s report.
I wonder how many people will take Rich's warning of a ticking time bomb seriously. Let me guess that no one will, at least no one who will do one damn thing about it. or is Ron Paul's day coming?