Only Two Years After Crisis, Wall Street Earns Record Pay

Total compensation and benefits hit $135 billion in 2010

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The U.S. may still be struggling with high unemployment and halting economic recovery, but signs emerge each day that the financial crisis has receded into history: the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and its splinter groups published their warring postmortems, President Obama has turned his attention from bank bailouts to job growth, and at least one analyst is warning that complacency about financial regulation could quickly lead to another financial meltdown.

Today brings fresh evidence that memories of 2008 are fading. Total compensation and benefits at 25 publicly traded Wall Street firms increased nearly six percent in 2010 to an all-time high of $135 billion, The Wall Street Journal reports, fueled by record revenue of $417 billion. Pay and benefits rose faster than revenue, and average compensation per employee climbed to $141,000. Still, the Journal notes, fallout from the financial crisis and new regulations have altered Wall Street's pay structure. Firms are deferring more compensation than they did in the past and increasing base salaries to address the concern that annual cash bonuses gave employees incentives to take excessive risks and embrace short-term gains.

While compensation differs by firm and job type, the news is generally good for Wall Street. But how should everyone else feel?

  • What Should We Make of New Pay Rules? wonders InvestorPlace's Jeff Reeves: "If you're of the mind that this is well deserved compensation, you probably think the shift is irrelevant--these investment bankers earned their keep whether it be a big paycheck, stock options or a company car. And if you're of the mind that this is all greed driven, you probably think Wall Street is just trying to whitewash it's money-grubbing ways."
  • Why Aren't Average Americans Getting Raises? wonders Peter Cohan at DailyFinance. "Wall Street is one of the few industries where America enjoys an undisputed global lead," he explains, while "most other American industries face serious global competition, so they cut costs via layoffs and press for pay concessions and productivity improvements whenever possible." Cohan argues that Wall Street pays its employees higher salaries in part because it attracts America's top talent and can't outsource most of its work overseas. Cohan blasts government policies for making it less risky to work on Wall Street than to start a high-tech company.
  • Wall Street Hasn't Learned Its Lesson, laments Jon Talton at the Seattle Times. He says the financial sector hasn't been sufficiently reformed and that another financial crisis is inevitable: "As many working Americans ask, 'what are benefits?' and millions have lost jobs because of the crash, remember that Wall Street, big banks and their captive regulators were most to blame."
  • Most Wall Street Pay Is Defensible, counters Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture: "There is nothing wrong with most of the compensation that is paid to Wall Street. It was the insanely misaligned compensation--getting paid huge bucks to sell things people knew were likely to blow up--that helped create the crisis. Remember, Wall Street and the Banks employ millions of people; it was much less than 1% of these people who blew the economic world up."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.