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Wall Street's fat cats are about to get even fatter

Times are tough on America's main street, where jobs are hard to come by and destitute families are losing their homes. But over on Wall Street -- where the global financial crisis was incubated -- the fat cats are living it up, earning more than ever even as the rest of the country suffers.

American bankers are expected to receive a record-breaking $144bn (€103bn) in combined pay and bonuses this year, according to a new report released by the Wall Street Journal.

The whopping pay packet, which makes up 1 per cent of the country's overall GDP according to one leading expert, comes despite strict financial reform to curb compensation imposed by the Obama administration last year.

"It just demonstrates that the bank reforms were wholly unsuccessful because it's the compensation culture that drove the risky practices and, in turn, the financial meltdown," Professor Peter Morici of the University of Maryland told the Irish Independent.

According to the report, pay is expected to rise at 26 out of 35 firms on Wall Street, representing a 4 per cent increase over last year's $139bn (€100bn). And although revenue is reported to be significantly down at two Wall Street giants -- Bank of America and Goldman Sachs -- executives there will receive higher pay than last year.

The announcement is causing outrage amongst experts who predict that rising Wall Street pay will only serve to aggravate the current economic crisis.

"$144bn is really an atrocious figure," said Mr Morici. "It's shameful. It's wholly unwarranted. For what? For the talent to destroy the global economy? We keep hearing that we have to pay for talent. What kind of talent is that?"

At financial firms, an extreme culture of entitlement has long existed, experts say, because banking heads believe that without high pay, they won't be able to keep talented whizz kids.

The average employee on Wall Street makes upwards of $392,000 (€282,000) a year, compared to $63,875 (€45,940) for the rest of New York City. At Goldman Sachs, the average pay for 2009 was estimated at nearly $600,000 (€431,535).

Over at JP Morgan Chases's investment bank, it was close to $400,000 (€287,690).

At most financial firms, salaries tend to be in the low six figures, with annual bonuses -- sometimes running in the tens of millions -- making up the bulk of the pay for employees.

Last year, senior staff at Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse Group in London jumped ship when their firms cut their pay based on a government levy on bonus earnings.

But a report last year by New York State attorney general Andrew Cuomo found that big banks have consistently failed to link compensation to performance, continuing to dish out massive bonuses even in years when employees lost tens of thousands of dollars.

Frank Partnoy, a former Wall Street derivatives trader, wrote a tell-all book about his time at Morgan Stanley that paints a grim picture of the excesses and exuberant egos of bankers who believe themselves to be "rocket scientists".

Working in the mid 1990s, Mr Partnoy and his team -- most of who were still in their twenties -- made a staggering one billion in two years, earning each team member $15m (€10.8m). Even the lowest members of the team, says Mr Partnoy, were earning six-figure salaries.

In his book, he paints an unflattering picture of the cut-throat culture of Wall Street where hard-charging banking bosses threatened to "rip someone's face off" and where traders routinely smashed their telephones against the walls.

One banking boss at Mr Partnoy's firm allegedly kept a metal spike on his desk on which he threatened to impale inept employees.

"We were prepared to kill someone, and we did," wrote Mr Partnoy in Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader. "The battlefields of the derivatives world are littered with our victims."

Regulating the pay of these bullish employees has not been easy, as President Barack Obama found out when he instigated banking reforms last year following outrage over the "shameful" bonuses that Wall Street executives doled out in the wake of the banking collapse.

The legislation, passed in July, gives regulators the power to write laws governing executive pay. However, those rules have not yet been written and experts say it could be several months before they see the light of day.

In the meantime, with low interest rates and strong global markets, the banks have been able to base their pay on economic and market conditions. Similar attempts by Washington to persuade banks to end their cash bonuses and give their employees compensation in stock have also been slow to catch on.

"Until the focus of these institutions changes from revenue generation to long-term shareholder value, we will see these outrageous pay packages and compensation levels," said Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Centre for Corporate Governance.

As ordinary Americans struggle to find a way out of the grip of the recession and to remain afloat, experts say that they have grown "numb" to the excesses and big wallets of the nation's bankers on Wall Street.

"They're just sort of focusing on, 'Can I get a mortgage? Can I get a job? What am I earning?'" said Mr Morici.

Meanwhile, in the time machine that is Wall Street, the very people at the heart of the financial crisis are thriving and continue to reap fabulous pay packages.

If their largesse continues, says Mr Morici, the rest of us will soon be feeling the pinch.

"They are essentially sowing the seeds of yet another financial meltdown by paying themselves too much money," he said.

Irish Independent