Bloomberg Looks at Merrill’s $34 Million Man

Bloomberg keeps the Andrea Orcel story alive with a nice piece today. Orcel is the Merrill Lynch banker who took home $34 million last year as his company lost $27 billion.

I like that Bloomberg went looking for whether the usual excuse for outlandish pay packages—that people will go elsewhere—was true. John Thain has used it, of course, to say he had to keep his best talent.

First, “talent” is maybe not the right word, as Paul Volcker says:

Last year, Orcel advised Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc on its $19 billion acquisition of Dutch Bank ABN Amro Holding NV, which was completed in April. Royal Bank of Scotland, once the second-biggest U.K. bank by market value, is now controlled by the government after reporting the biggest loss in the country’s history.

“ABN Amro and Royal Bank of Scotland are both bankrupt and their leaders are disgraced, but the investment banker who put it together walks off with $30 million,” Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve and now head of President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, said at a conference at New York University’s Stern School of Business last week. “There’s something the matter with that system.”

Second, Bloomberg has two senior Wall Street executives saying Orcel would have a hard time getting hired elsewhere now, though it’s unclear if that’s because he’s recently achieved notoriety or because nobody would pay him that much.

Probably both. The piece quotes an author saying this:

“Nobody can get paid $34 million in this environment,” said Charles Geisst, author of “Wall Street: A History” and a finance professor at Manhattan College in New York. “We are at a crucial juncture, where that sort of thing goes out the window.”

And the head headhunter at Challenger, Gray & Christmas gets down to the core:

“Merrill Lynch was trying to get in one more year of bonuses before the system changed,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Chicago-based placement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. “As the industry faces a sea-change, it will affect everybody.”

One last go at the trough.

This next one is a nice quote, but I would have liked to have seen Bloomberg put it in context. The public pension funds have done a poor job of throwing their weight around (and they have considerable heft) on executive compensation, and I doubt this guy’s any different:

“What was shocking is that, after being under such a spotlight for so long, the bonuses were still given, even after there had been shareholder and taxpayer outrage about how executives were lining their pockets with money to the detriment of everyone else,” said Richard Ferlauto, director of corporate governance and pension investment at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Washington.

Well, do something about it then, Richard. Vote your shares.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.