You Still Need to Care About Sky-High Wall Street CEO Pay

Bad incentives helped bring the economy to the brink, and they haven't gone away.

Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO, The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., right, and Brian Moynihan, CEO, Bank of America speak to reporters after they and other financial leaders met with President Barack Obama regarding the debt ceiling and the economy at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013.

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

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According to a new regulatory filing, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan received a compensation package for 2013 worth $14 million, a $2 million increase over 2012. This places Moynihan third on the list of big bank CEOs, behind Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein, who made $23 million last year and JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, who made $20 million. Moynihan's top underlings also received multi-million dollar compensation packages of their own.

With these numbers, it seems that Wall Street’s biggest banks are trying to put the financial crisis of 2008 firmly in the rear view mirror. (Never mind that many of them, most prominently JPMorgan, are still paying out hefty fines, penalties and settlements due to their actions in the lead up to that crisis.) Nothing more to see here! Back to business as usual! All’s well that ends profitably!

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Over at the New York Times’ Dealbook this week, Ohio State University professor Steven Davidoff even lamented the outsized attention still garnered by CEO pay at Wall Street firms, when, for instance, tech CEOs sometimes make much more. “This double standard for finance and technology doesn’t make sense,” he wrote, adding that “perhaps it is time to call a truce on the Wall Street bias in looking at executive compensation.”

But there’s a good reason for the focus on Wall Street pay. For tech firms, misaligned incentives aren’t likely to crash the economy. For Wall Street, however, short-term risk-taking in pursuit of bigger bonuses can cause systemic problems, as several studies have shown. That’s why the Dodd-Frank financial reform law included new regulations meant to tie executive compensation at banks to longer-term performance (and it didn’t hurt that reining in Wall Street pay makes for good politics).

Sure, Davidoff is right that sky-high CEO pay deserves a broader look across the board. After all, it’s a big driver of income inequality. As the Economic Policy Institute has found, “Executives, and workers in finance, accounted for 58 percent of the expansion of income for the top 1 percent and 67 percent of the increase in income for the top 0.1 percent from 1979 to 2005.” Not only that, but taxpayers are subsidizing these big pay packages thanks to a loophole allowing corporations to write off CEO pay that is “performance based.” (Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, has introduced legislation to fix that particular problem, but given what the Republican-held House is interested in these days, I wouldn’t expect it to come up for a vote anytime soon.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But the fact remains that Wall Street pay is unique due to its ability to cause harm to the wider economy. The simple solutions for reining in pay that would work in other industries – such as higher taxes, more transparency and stronger unions – don’t reduce that risk. And the fixes in Dodd-Frank, while helpful, haven’t done enough, as professor J. Robert Brown Jr., an expert in corporate law, wrote recently:

Executive compensation is not adequately bounded by legal standards under state law. Efforts to address these concerns by Congress have been useful but remain incomplete. The system as it currently exists does not ensure that compensation will be based upon actual performance or that the approach will not encourage excessive risk taking.


Now, Wall Street will tell you up, down and all around that its new pay packages are not like those of yesteryear. And maybe that's even the case for now. But as 2008 fades further and further into memory, it’s worth remembering just how the economy was brought to the brink and what still hasn’t been done to fix those problems. Without firm rules, there's nothing stopping Wall Street from slipping right back to the same old bad habits when it thinks everyone has lost interest.