Much Ado About Not Much on Pay

Wall Street pay has been all over the news the last couple of days, leading the Journal and the Times and the like, though it looks like a bunch of noise to this observer—moves that are more like political PR ploys than anything of lasting consequence.

Joe Nocera feels somewhat similar it seems, writing that:

…much of Wall Street has already moved to better align pay with longer-term performance. Firms have decreased the cash component, and increased stock awards, with strings attached that force them to hold the stock for long periods of time. But that isn’t exactly keeping pay down, which — and let’s be honest here — is what most of the country really wants to see, given how the nation’s bankers helped put us at the brink of financial ruin.

You betcha. He’s right that these kinds of things paper over the bigger issue. After all, as he points out, this brutal crackdown by the administration will still leave some of the afflicted with near-eight-figure hauls, despite what the WSJ calls “aggressively regulate(d) compensation” and an “unprecedented federal intervention in pay decisions.”

But Nocera doesn’t exactly recommend bringing the hammer down. He suggests the focus be shifted to shareholder democracy.

That’s all well and good, but does anyone really think that’s going to really move the needle? Shareholders, if only they can get rid of staggered board elections, will rise up and smite the greedy pinstripers? I don’t think so.

Colin Barr of Fortune takes on the argument that the pay curbs are self-defeating because they will lead those affected to leave the government-regulated firms. Barr says:

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.

It’s a noble sentiment, and it’s always good to point the latter part out, but does anybody really think we’re about to see a mass exodus of MBAs?

Where are they going to go? The Wall Street Journal takes on the argument that we’re regulating the financial industry off shore with a smart piece:

For bankers, traders and deal makers at the world’s major banks, there may be nowhere to hide from new restrictions on how much they can earn…

One criticism of the pay restrictions is that they will push the most talented executives to take positions at foreign-owned banks overseas, but most of the countries that host major financial hubs are considering tougher restrictions.

Let’s face it. The only way you’re going to really change this is through tax policy and root-and-branch changes in the structure of the industry and in the economy itself.

That doesn’t appear to be happening, to say the least. It’s not hard to imagine why.

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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.