A widely circulated rumor that Goldman Sachs executives were loading up on firearms to protect themselves against a populist uprising turned out to be spurious, but the leaders of the bank are clearly worried about rising discontent over Goldman's prosperity amid continuing economic distress for most everyone else.
The announcement that Goldman's top 30 executives will be denied cash bonuses this year is one of the most significant concessions Wall Street has ever made to public outrage. The members of Goldman's management committee won't be denied bonuses entirely but will receive them in the form of "shares at risk" -- stock that cannot be sold for five years and is subject to recapture if the recipient engages in "materially improper risk analysis" or fails "sufficiently to raise concerns about risks."
It is unclear whether these rules, which would require prudence rarely seen in the casino culture of investment banking, will be applied stringently. Goldman's announcement that it will allow a shareholder advisory vote on compensation practices will make it a bit more difficult to flout the rules entirely.
While the ultimate impact of the Goldman move is uncertain, Britain and France are putting a real and immediate dent in bloated banker pay by imposing a 50 percent windfall tax on bonuses. Financiers in London and Paris are up in arms over the moves, with one investment banking chief telling the Financial Times that as a result of the tax the "contract between government and business is broken."
And what exactly is that contract? As far as the financial sector is concerned, the traditional contract was that banks were expected to provide the capital needed for the "real" economy, and government did not regulate the market too strictly. A decade ago, financiers got the regulatory regime loosened even more, which in the United States meant an end to the separation between commercial banking and investment banking. The new contract seemed to be that a fully liberated financial sector would magically create wealth to make up for the travails of the productive portion of the economy.
The crisis of the past two years put an end to that notion, and the contract we've been left with seems to be little more than an obligation by government to prop up a teetering financial sector with bailouts and access to virtually free funding. There is no quid pro quo imposed on bankers, who are allowed to deny credit to businesses and individuals alike and use their cheap money to rack up trading profits. And those profits serve mainly to pay for outsized bonuses for the bankers themselves.
It's always been questionable whether big finance capital served a legitimate social purpose. Now it is clear that the big banks exist mainly for the enrichment of their own executives. About half of total revenue at these banks is set aside for compensation of executives and other employees.
That's why Bank of America and Citigroup are so eager to repay their bailout money and free themselves from the constraints of the federal pay czar. And it's why the big banks have felt no compunction about opposing the financial regulatory reforms now before Congress.
While financial industry lobbyists twist arms behind the scenes, Goldman is playing good cop with its bonus restrictions and the quasi-apology its CEO Lloyd Blankfein issued in November. Yet neither voluntary actions by the likes of Goldman nor modest regulatory reforms are sufficient. The current "contract" between big finance and not just government but all of society needs to be rewritten, and this time we shouldn't let bank lawyers draft the document.
(Photo from Dirt Diggers Digest.)