Want to Protest Wall Street's Bonus Bonanza? Good Luck

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Wall Street is on track to pay itself near-record bonuses for its 2009 performance. The Associated Press reports that the six biggest banks will reap a $150 billion 2009 bonus bonanza, a mere 8.5% less than what they received in the record year of 2007. Do you think you have the right to protest? Of course you do. But it won't get you too far because you lack the cash for your protests to make a difference.It's worth remembering that Wall Street got those record 2007 bonuses in early 2008, after the recession sparked by the financial crisis had begun. As I've posted, that crisis was caused mostly by Wall Street's overextension of securitization and leverage. And the costs of that crisis have been astounding: $30 trillion in 2008 global stock market losses, record foreclosures of 2.8 million home in 2009, 27 million Americans underemployed, 10%+ unemployment, 2009 worker wages down the most in 20 years, and a government bailout that could hit $23.7 trillion.

So, now that your taxes supplied the money needed to bail out the bankers for that little economic blip, you might be angry about their near-record bonuses this year. As I've posted, it looks like the leader of the six big banks -- Goldman Sachs Group (GS) -- made its money mostly from trading for its own account, some of which may have come out of the hides of its clients. Goldman's estimated 2009 bonuses could come out to $782,313 per employee -- about 13 times 2009's roughly $60,000 median U.S. family income.

Where Control Really Rests

You have the right to say just about anything you want about these bonuses. But just because your tax dollars bailed out the banks last year, that doesn't mean you have any legal say over the banks.

If you owned common shares of the six banks, you'd be able to vote for or against those banks' directors. But unless you own an extraordinary number of shares (more than half would do the trick nicely), that vote won't have a meaningful effect. And even if you got a say on pay through your ownership of the common stock, that say wouldn't be binding on how much bankers get paid.

If you really want control over Wall Street pay practices, you need to control Washington. And unless you can pay more than Wall Street's $500 million annually in lobbying fees and campaign contributions, you're going to lose to Wall Street every time.

In short, we have the best government money can buy. You can protest all you want about Wall Street's 30,000% return on its investment in Washington ($150 billion in bonuses/$500 million in annual Washington cash).

But -- not withstanding the White House's protestations of "obscene bonuses" -- Jimmy-crack-corn-and-Washington-don't-care.

Peter Cohan has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.

Meet Peter Cohan at The World Money Show Orlando, Feb. 3-6, 2010, at The Gaylord Palms Resort.
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