November 11th, 2009
09:06 AM GMT
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If you thought that lavish bonuses for the financial industry would be a welcome casualty of the current financial crisis, it is time to think again. The New York-based executive search and compensation consultancy, Options Group, put that notion to rest for us in a new report.

Watch CNN's Ali Velshi explain what underlies the return of big bonuses on Wall Street.

Options Group predicts bonuses at financial firms worldwide will increase by an average 40% this year, just months after many of these firms were teetering on the brink of disaster and begging for bailouts.

The report, released this week, says that managing directors in high-yield credit sales will see the biggest bonuses, along with those in commodity sales units. They’ve apparently had a heck of a year. In fact, it is an incredible turnaround in fortunes which came, of course, thanks to a life raft the size of Manhattan!

Still, how could it have happened so fast: A return so promptly to business and bonuses as usual? Interviewed on Monday’s edition of World Business Today, CNN’s Ali Velshi told me, “It’s unusual given the times we are in. It’s less unusual if you’ve been tracking how this market has been doing. When you look at the money these banks are making, they’ve actually made it on trading…. Buying things cheap and selling them high.”

Velshi also points out that many of the big banks making money now have paid back the taxpayer funds they borrowed, and taxpayers have made a profit on those transactions.

However, seven of the big financial firms doling out bonuses are not off the taxpayer’s hook. Their bonuses will reportedly be less handsome.

Velshi says, “Major profits have been taken at companies that have paid that money back… and they want to be free to pay their people. It’s quite a remarkable situation. You wouldn’t have thought six months ago we’d be talking about bonuses that were bigger than last year.”

Some analysts point out that financial firms will offer more in stock and defer more cash payments because of public pressure, and pressure from regulators to pay tie to long-term results rather than rewarding short term risk. That might placate those who believe excessive rewards for short-term risk helped cause the financial meltdown.

Professor Peter Morici, of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, says, “These bonuses show Wall Street is arrogant and insensitive. These bonuses were earned by investing cheap taxpayer funds, and the profits really belong to all Americans. This entire episode is an outrage.”

The U.S. Federal Reserve is planning to review the 28 largest banks to ensure compensation is not rewarding risk; however, global leaders have tried and failed more than once in the past year to agree on what constitutes excessive risk or excessive compensation.

“You only know it,” explained Barack Obama’s pay Czar Kenneth Feinberg a few weeks ago, “Once it’s staring you in the face,” and by then, of course, it’s too late.

So what’s the message here? Let’s just get used to it? The punch bowl is full once again on Wall Street. To paraphrase the much-maligned quotation attributed in London’s Sunday Times to Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein, God’s work is being done. Phew!

So let’s just grit our teeth and pretend we haven’t learned a thing in the past year. There’s no need to wonder what’s going on now; no need to worry about what might be laying the groundwork for the next financial crisis. After all, we’ll know it, once we see it.



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