Could Goldman's New Compensation Plan Transform Wall Street?

The unintended consequences of Goldman's decision to cut year-end cash bonuses

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Is Goldman Sachs reforming more than just itself? The deep-pocketed investment firm announced Thursday it's nixing year-end cash bonuses to its top 30 executives. The company, long reviled for taking taxpayer dollars and awarding enormous bonuses, will instead dole out restricted stock that can be rescinded within five years, depending on the executive's performance. Some say the move is brilliant and could change the way banks reward performance, while others are highly skeptical it signals a substantive change.

  • A Terrific Idea--May Reshape Wall Street, writes Noam Scheiber at The New Republic: "We should do this for every bonus on Wall Street, every year... The bonuses will be paid out in special 'shares at risk,' which is basically stock that can't be sold for five years and can be clawed back if the recipient loses Goldman a bunch of money...The idea is so eminently reasonable it's hard to believe Goldman hasn't just massively increased pressure on itself (and every other major bank) to adopt this approach permanently, for all executives."
  • Is Washington Watching? The Economist's Free Exchange blog writes: "If Goldman is willing to do this restructuring, which essentially lowers the value of the awarded bonuses, then they must not fear losing their best employees. And in all likelihood, they will not lose their best employees. And people in Washington may begin to notice this."
  • Won't Change a Thing, writes Kevin Drum at Mother Jones: "Can I just take this opportunity to say how underwhelmed I am with this?  Let me count the ways.  (1) The amount of the bonuses hasn't changed a whit, only their form. (2) The whole point of changing a compensation plan is to change incentives.  Announcing a new bonus plan at the end of the year does nothing to change incentives unless Blankfein invents a time machine too. (3) It's only for the top 30 executives.  What about the traders? (4) It's apparently only for this year. See #2.  (5) The official definition of reckless ("materially improper risk analysis") is so stringent that there's really no chance it will ever apply to anyone.
  • What This Move Really Means The Wall Street Journal's Dennis Berman translates Goldman's move into English: "World, please get off our backs, okay. We’ve been doing this stuff since May, and are going to have to live on margin loans for the next five years. Oh, we hope this means everyone else on the Street has to fall in line, too."
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