Are you furious? If not, you should be. The giant financial institutions that make up Wall Street have been bailed out, thanks to trillions of dollars of our money, and are on track to hand out record-breaking multibillion-dollar bonuses while millions of regular folks are hurting. Even outside the gilded halls of Wall Street, there's no shortage of good cheer: many economists say the Great Recession has ended, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke keeps seeing "green shoots" in the economy.
But the only green shoots that many nonWall Street types have seen lately are the weeds sprouting in the parking lots of abandoned malls. Unemployment is marching toward 10%, and house foreclosures are still rising. If you're a day late with your credit-card payment or overdrawn by a few bucks on your ATM card, the bank (which your tax money helped bail out) is still sticking you with obscene fees and charges. Hence the question that so many of us are asking: Where's my bailout?
Welcome to Round 2 of Main Street vs. Wall Street. The divide is the worst I've seen in my 40 years of writing about finance. In a new TIME poll, 75% of the respondents say they believe Wall Street will revert to business as usual, 67% want the government to force pay cuts, and 59% want more government regulation.
Main and Wall are never going to love each other. And they probably shouldn't, because their interests aren't identical. But if we're going to get through this mess as a society and regain our prosperity, Main Street and Wall Street need to understand each other. And they don't.
Too many people on Wall Street are acting in an arrogant, clueless and tone-deaf way, huffily treating any criticism of their pay and practices and perks as an attack on the free-enterprise system. Wall Streeters like to say (and may even believe) that they're helping humanity which occasionally happens, but only by accident rather than being out to make the most money they can.
Without a doubt, the financial meltdown and its ensuing horrors began on Wall Street. However, Main Street is not a totally innocent lamb in all this. Yes, the greedheads tempted us with mortgages and other products we couldn't afford. But you could have said no, as many of us did. And you could have tried to live within your means or, better yet, below them, instead of falling prey to financial fantasies.
Who's to Blame?
While it feels great to be outraged by these fat bonuses and whack the pigs by restricting or seeming to restrict the pay at outfits that have taken government bailout money, it's a bit pointless too. Because to some extent, Wall Street's pay and its problems really are misunderstood. (Stop snickering! It's true.) Even though "Wall Street" means the nation's big financial and investing operations, not a geographical location, a disproportionate number of Street people live in Manhattan. Things in the desirable parts of that borough are expensive beyond belief, especially if you have children and feel the need to send them to $40,000-a-year private schools. But these people choose to live in Manhattan.
In the real world (outside New York City), a bonus is generally a payment for extraordinarily good performance. But on Wall Street, what's called a bonus is generally part of base pay. That's especially true for worker bees, who far outnumber CEOs. (The word bonus is a remnant from the days when Wall Street was made up of partnerships. Now that Wall Street's largely owned by public shareholders, it should have long since dropped bonus for contingent compensation or something similar. But hey, the Street, as I said, is tone-deaf.)
Paying a $25 million or $30 million bonus to a Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase or Morgan Stanley higher-up this year is obscene because none of these firms would exist if our government and others hadn't stepped in to save the world financial system. If these companies have all that money around, largely courtesy of us, they ought to send it to the U.S. Treasury. But paying a $250,000 bonus on top of a $150,000 salary to a worker bee is a different story.
More important, at least when it comes to the bailed-out businesses, the notion that there's a correlation between excessive pay and excessive risk-taking isn't quite accurate. It may be true in the case of hedge funds or leveraged-buyout which call themselves private-equity (PE) firms or some parts of stricken outfits like AIG, Citi and the former Merrill Lynch, now part of Bank of America. But hedgies and PEs aren't covered by pay czar Ken Feinberg's ukases.