Published: January 23 2009 22:03 | Last updated: January 23 2009 22:03
What is it that bankers don’t get? Unable to own up to a collective failure, some still display a sense of entitlement that bears no relation to their current status as wards of the state supported by the taxpayer. Step forward John Thain.
Formerly of Goldman Sachs, he was feted just months ago for securing the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, just as Lehman Brothers crumbled into dust. BofA even paid a 70 per cent premium. Some deal. Some salvation.
It now emerges that Mr Thain brought forward about $4bn in discretionary bonuses, paying them out in the narrow window after the sale of Merrill was agreed but days before the deal was actually closed.
This wheeze went down just as Merrill headed into record $21.5bn operating losses in the fourth quarter and BofA started seeking additional taxpayers’ funds from the troubled asset relief programme to digest its acquisition.
These bonuses, moreover, came in a year when Merrill’s total operating loss was $41.2bn. Bonuses equivalent to 10 per cent of the profits would be excessive, but 10 per cent of the losses? Furthermore, reports that Mr Thain spent $1.22m doing up his office, including $1,400 on a parchment rubbish bin, after his arrival at Merrill last year will serve to feed popular perceptions that the greed and insensitivity of investment bankers knows few limits.
Whether or not the bonuses were legal – and it seems they were – outside the parallel universe of investment bankers they are seen as looting. Bankers played a very big part in setting fire to the world economy – and reaped large rewards for their recklessness. They are being supported with public money because the economy cannot work without banks, not because bankers should be a protected species.
There may be no tumbrils rolling down Wall Street or through the City of London but a backlash is building. It would be a pity if this translates into regulation more stifling than that required to restrain more foolish risk-taking. But if bankers behave like this, it certainly will.