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Wall Street’s Got Talent

A familiar theme in the aftermath of the White House slashing executive pay packages at bailed-out firms concerned “talent” – the idea that these companies would not be able to attract or keep top executives if constrained on compensation. The Washington Post said executives were already fleeing rather than have to live on a paltry $500,000 a year.

For once, I’ve seen a bit of pushback on this. Business columnist Stephen Pearlstein didn’t hail the pay cuts as the entire answer for regulating risk on Wall Street, but he did puncture a hole in the whole argument about “talent”:

The big banks, of course, will make precisely this argument as they seek to water down the Fed’s pay proposal, just as they will try to water down similar proposals to require them to hold more capital or use less leverage. Their complaint will be that if they compete on an uneven field, they will inevitably lose talent, capital, market share and profits.

They may be right, of course, but if it turns out that these pay rules wind up steering the riskiest activity to smaller, more focused institutions whose failure won’t require them to be bailed out by the taxpayer, that might be a good thing.

Colin Barr, a writer at Fortune, went even further, asking “Who cares if Wall Street talent leaves,” noting that this group of talent wasn’t very talented over the last few years:

Still, we say Godspeed to this “talent.” After all, the traders and suits in the corner offices don’t exactly have an unblemished track record. In 2008, Citigroup, BofA and Merrill Lynch (since acquired by BofA) posted a grand total of $51 billion in losses.

Yet even as they were running themselves into the ground, the firms managed to pay out more than $12 billion in bonuses — including 1,606 million-dollar-plus bonuses, according to a report from the New York attorney general’s office.

“Even a cursory examination of the data suggests that in these challenging economic times, compensation for bank employees has become unmoored from the banks’ financial performance,” the report said.

Simply put, regular workers who turned in this kind of performance would have been fired without batting an eyelash.

Joe Nocera argues that only shareholders can really rein in CEO pay, which would especially be true if the “say on pay” provision, passed by the House Financial Services Committee and endorsed by the President, went into law (Nocera wants to actually go further and empower shareholders to toss board members out the door). Nocera doesn’t mention that the government IS the shareholder in the case of the bailed-out firms. But Nocera makes a worse factual error, or that is to say reveals some factual blindness:

Ken Lewis, the soon-to-be-retired chief executive of Bank of America, has declined to take a salary in 2009, at Mr. Feinberg’s urging. But he is still going to get around $70 million in retirement pay — which Mr. Feinberg could do nothing about. And so Mr. Lewis will soon join the ranks of other top Wall Street executives who walked away with millions after doing a miserable job. That’s the kind of pay practice that makes people justifiably angry.

And the American International Group is contractually obliged to make bonus payments of nearly $200 million in March 2010. The company has promised to try to reduce that amount by 30 percent. But once again, there is nothing Mr. Feinberg can do because those bonuses were already written into contracts — and there is a high likelihood that the bonuses will create another furor in Congress, just as they did earlier this year.

This is an amusing statement given the dichotomy, well-discussed by Matt Browner-Hamlin, of Nocera and many like him urging for the breaking of union contracts during the auto bailout. Union contracts can be broken with the bat of an eyelash, but Wall Street contracts are sacred writs scrawled in blood.

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David Dayen

David Dayen