Wall Street: Taking Bailouts, Giving Bonuses?

"Good for them, they made some smart business decisions," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "But it's not like they're not getting money and a benefit from Uncle Sam."

JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo are receiving a combined $50 billion in taxpayer money.

Yet, the average American taxpayer, with a median household income of $50,233, might object to the idea of paying part of the seven-figure incomes of bankers.

Similarly, State Street Corp. said in a statement: "We do not intend to use the TARP capital to pay bonuses."

Regardless of their health, all nine banks are, so far, on track to award bonuses this year, experts say.

Finance Sector's Brain Drain?

According to one bank official, banks have a tricky situation on their hands. The banks need to make sure that they retain talent through adequate compensation, especially as the crisis unfolds. They also have to honor contractual obligations while meeting the public relations challenge.

Some bank officials say they fear a "brain drain" to other areas of finance or the private sector if bonuses decrease. For bankers making seven figures, though, finding jobs with comparable compensation could be difficult in the current economy.

According to Johnson, the government has done a bad job of managing expectations.

"If the government had invested in the baseball business, you wouldn't say, 'Don't pay the baseball players,'" he said.

"The cat's out of the bag," said Dave Schmidt, an analyst with James F. Reda and Associates, pointing out that there is a spotlight on everything the banks do. "Even if, in their minds, they have some justification for a particular level of pay, to explain that to the world will be very difficult."

Top Level Compensation Limits

There are now at least two different investigations into CEO compensation.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who heads the Congressional Oversight Committee, is spearheading a congressional investigation. The banks at the center of the TARP program were told to hand in details of their compensation plans to Congress by Nov. 10, but the deadline has now been extended.

Similarly, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo asked the nine banks to hand in information on compensation to his office by Nov. 5. The New York Times reports that Cuomo's office has received some preliminary paperwork from banks.

Cuomo has already succeeded in convincing AIG to freeze millions in payment to former AIG CEO Martin Sullivan and other top executives.

Bailout vs. Performance

What about the limits on executive pay in the rescue plan?

Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin has refused to comment directly on bonus programs.

"Treasury has always believed pay should be for performance," she said. "Every public company should, including and especially ones getting taxpayer money, should compensate based on performance.

"Every bank that accepts this money first must agree to the compensation restriction passed by Congress," she said.

The $700 billion government rescue plan addresses only compensation of five executives: the CEO, the CFO and the three other most highly compensated executives. The plan does not set a limit on executive pay, but rather, states that any salary above $500,000 for these five executives will not be tax deductible for the company.

Ellis calls the move "largely symbolic."

The legislation also includes restrictions on golden parachute payments to any executives leaving the company.

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