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Bank Looting Bonuses Reported--Will the SEC Awake from Its Slumber?

Mary Bottari

A short time ago, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo released a report focusing on the bank bonuses paid out by the biggest banks in 2008, the same year they were bailed out by federal taxpayers. The report notes that in many instances the bank bonuses exceeded bank profits, the implication being that taxpayer dollars were being used to subsidize the salaries of the ace banking executives who created the financial crisis in the first place.

Highlights from the report No Rhyme or Reason: The Heads I Win, Tails You Lose Bank Bonus Culture include:

Two firms, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, suffered massive losses of more than $27 billion at each firm. Nevertheless, Citigroup paid out $5.33 billion in bonuses, and Merrill paid $3.6 billion in bonuses. Together, they lost $54 billion, paid out nearly $9 billion in bonuses and then received TARP bailouts totaling $55 billion.

For three other firms—Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase—2008 bonus payments were substantially greater than the banks' net income. Goldman earned $2.3 billion, paid out $4.8 billion in bonuses, and received $10 billion in TARP funding. Morgan Stanley earned $1.7 billion, paid $4.475 billion in bonuses, and received $10 billion in TARP funding. JPMorgan Chase earned $5.6 billion, paid $8.69 billion in bonuses, and received $25 billion in TARP funding. Combined, these three firms earned $9.6 billion, paid bonuses of nearly $18 billion, and received TARP taxpayer funds worth $45 billion.

In sum, Mr. Cuomo wrote:

Thus, when the banks did well, their employees were paid well. When the banks did poorly, their employees were paid well. And when the banks did very poorly, they were bailed out by taxpayers and their employees were still paid well.


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Why hasn’t anyone been prosecuted for looting the American taxpayer? Indeed, the number of prosecutions involving banking boondoggle is—dare I say it? Criminally small.

One "bonus bailout" did end up in court. You remember the brouhaha when it became known that Merrill Lynch (headed by John Thain of the million dollar bathroom remodel) paid out a $3.6 billion dollar bonus package to executives shortly after it had lost $27 billion and shortly before it was acquired by Bank of America (BoA)? Well, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) woke up from its decade-long snooze and decided to investigate the bonus bonanza. Eventually, it fined the company for not telling its shareholders about the package. All well and good, except it fined the company $33 million, which is less than 1% of the $3.6 billion looted from taxpayers.

Fortunately, a federal judge, Jed Rakoff, who was required to review the settlement, flatly refused to approve it. Judge Rakoff said that BoA and Merrill had "lied to their shareholders." He said that the $3.6 billion in bonuses paid by Merrill, as the ailing brokerage giant was taken over by the bank, was from "effectively from Uncle Sam." At least this judge is demanding more accountability. The next hearing on the issue will be on August 24th.

So, will SEC chair Mary Shapiro be handed a spine and a double expresso? Will Merrill’s John Thain and BoA’s Kenneth Lewis be cuffed? Stay tuned.


Mary Bottari is the director of the Real Economy Project to be launched by the Center for Media and Democracy in September, 2009.

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