WSJ Eyeballs Upcoming Bank of America Bonuses

The Wall Street Journal continues to spotlight the record—or near-record—pay coming on Wall Street.

Remember Bank of America until recently was a ward of the state, mostly because of its disastrous purchase of Merrill Lynch, which would have taken down the bank if it hadn’t been too big to fail and Uncle Sam hadn’t stepped in to bail it out with tens of billions of dollars.

That’s why it scrambled to pay back that $45 billion to the Treasury last month, so it could get out from under the thumb of the pay czar and fork over the dough to its bankers. The WSJ reports they’ll be paid at about 2007 levels.

Look at this (emphasis mine):

But the move could reignite controversy over Merrill’s stratospheric pay culture, which remained largely intact even as the financial crisis pushed the company close to collapse.

Now, “stratospheric” is obviously a loaded word, so you might think we’d criticize use of it in a news story. But it’s certainly an accurate descriptor of the Merrill pay culture, so why shouldn’t the Journal use it? It conveys the truth better than saying something milquetoast like “aggressive pay culture.”

Let’s recall, too, that Merrill Lynch’s bankers are responsible for the most failed CDO’s out there and, thus, for a significant portion of the economic crisis. We’re talking tens of billions of dollars in losses. This from Bloomberg in January:

Merrill Lynch & Co., which was bought by Bank of America, was the underwriter for $49.4 billion in defaulted collateralized debt obligations, the most of any bank, since October 2007, according to data compiled by Standard & Poor’s and Bloomberg.

Merrill was the biggest CDO underwriter from 2005 to 2007, with more than $102 billion, said Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. research analyst Brad Hintz.

The Journal reports the bonus amounts will be paid out next month. The unemployment/underemployment rate ought to still be up around 17 percent by that point. If you’re out a job, the stratospherically-paid Merrill banker had no small part in creating the conditions for that.

Watch out for another major eruption of public outrage in a few weeks here, as the Journal notes up high.

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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.