Wall Street Stayed Put Despite Pay Fixes

Wall Street is a slippery beast. Whenever it’s faced with the prospect of regulatory circumscription, it threatens to take its ball and go to less-restrictive climes.

But it’s not as slippery as it would like us to believe.

The New York Times gets a leak
on pay czar Kenneth Feinberg’s plans to review compensation for top executives at bailed-out firms, and does well to pull an interesting angle out of an otherwise run-of-the-mill story.

Remember all that yammering from Wall Street about how cracking down on their pay would send their best and brightest to hedge funds or non-bailed-out firms or overseas or some such? Yeah, not so much:

Of the 104 senior executives whose pay was set by the federal pay regulator in the last two years, 88 executives, or nearly 85 percent, are still with the companies even though their pay was drastically cut back, according to people briefed on the government data.

The relative stability, at least within the executive suite, suggests that a soft job market, corporate loyalty and personal pride helped deter the feared management exodus at the companies hardest hit by the pay rules.

Well, you say, what about that 15 percent? Isn’t that significant? No. That presumably includes normal turnover—people leave for other jobs or retire (or die) in normal times. The Times doesn’t have any reporting on what normal turnover might be, but it strikes me that 85 percent seems about right.

It’s worth pointing out that this was not exactly hard to foretell. I wrote this five months ago:

… does anybody really think we’re about to see a mass exodus of MBAs?

Where are they going to go?

The Wall Street Journal wrote this:

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.

Remember all this the next time you hear Wall Street use its slippery defense against regulation.

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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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.