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Nearly 700 at Merrill-Lynch received bonuses in excess of $1Million

Oh, I love this article. It shows just how warped the concepts of the highly finance-minded can get in order to justify greed.

(James Estrin/The New York Times)

For nearly 700 lucky Merrill Lynch employees, 2008 was a million-dollar year, even though the brokerage firm lost $27 billion.

Andrew M. Cuomo, New York’s attorney general, disclosed how Merrill Lynch had distributed its 2008 bonus pool.

On a day the chief executives of eight large banks were questioned about their industry’s excesses on Capitol Hill, Andrew M. Cuomo, the attorney general of New York State, raised hackles by disclosing how Merrill Lynch distributed its 2008 bonus pool. The payments, made just before Merrill Lynch was sold to Bank of America in December, have already stirred anger for being paid earlier than usual. And Mr. Cuomo made it clear that the bulk of the bonuses were paid to a small portion of Merrill Lynch’s 39,000 employees.

“Merrill chose to make millionaires out of a select group of 700 employees,” Mr. Cuomo wrote in the letter, which was sent to the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday night.

The disclosure again puts Wall Street’s compensation system, which has long rewarded select individuals with handsome bonuses, under the microscope.

Many of the questions at Wednesday’s hearing in Washington centered on whether banking chiefs would take bonuses, and Mr. Cuomo has homed in on the payments made to executives by banks that have received more than $350 billion from the federal government. That banks have collectively lost hundreds of billions of dollars has only fueled public scorn.

The Merrill Lynch payments were not alone in the glare. Plans to pay brokers at the new joint venture between Morgan Stanley and the Smith Barney unit of Citigroup have endured a closer look in recent days, especially after a senior Morgan Stanley executive admonished his employees to call the payments “retention awards,” not bonuses.

Mr. Cuomo and others have criticized Merrill for moving up the bonus payments to December, just before shareholders approved the merger, instead of the usual time in January. John A. Thain, who as Merrill’s chief executive helped orchestrate the firm’s sale to Bank of America, was ousted from the combined company last month, largely over the bonus controversy.

For its part, Bank of America has acknowledged that it was fully aware of the amounts and timing. In fact, the bank persuaded Merrill Lynch to reduce the size of the bonuses. But in a statement Wednesday, the bank said: “Although we had a right of consultation, it was their ultimate decision to make.” However, several people involved say the bank signed off on the bonuses.

As part of his investigation into the matter, Mr. Cuomo has subpoenaed several executives from both Merrill and Bank of America, including Mr. Thain and J. Steele Alphin, Bank of America’s chief administrative officer. Kenneth D. Lewis, Bank of America’s chief executive, is likely to receive a subpoena as well.

If that $3.6 billion had been evenly disbursed among Merrill’s work force each person would have received about $91,000. Instead, the top four bonus recipients received a total of $121 million, Mr. Cuomo wrote.

One of them was Thomas K. Montag, who now runs global markets at Bank of America, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Mr. Montag was given a contract worth $39 million when he moved to Merrill from Goldman Sachs last year.

Another was Peter S. Kraus, a former Merrill executive vice president and now the chief executive of AllianceBernstein. The other two were part of Merrill’s upper management, this person said.

Other top Merrill executives, including Mr. Thain; Gregory J. Fleming, its former president; and Robert D. McCann, its former wealth management chief, did not receive bonuses.

Mr. Cuomo also wrote that 20 people were paid more than $8 million and 53 people were paid more than $5 million. Some of the bonuses — 30 percent — were paid in stock, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

It is not clear whether Mr. Cuomo will seek to claw back those bonuses. Proving that the payments violated New York’s so-called fraudulent conveyance law, which enables creditors to sue to recover unjustified compensation in certain cases, would be difficult because of high legal hurdles. Mr. Cuomo may try to show that Merrill and Bank of America failed to disclose material information about Merrill’s financial health to allow the payments to be made.

Separately, the issue of retention payments to brokers of the soon-to-be-combined Morgan Stanley and Smith Barney took on more attention on Wednesday, after the Huffington Post Web site posted audio of a conference call held by James P. Gorman, a Morgan Stanley co-president.

On the call, Mr. Gorman emphasized that the payments were not bonuses, but were a normal award to keep highly prized financial advisers after mergers of brokerage firms. The awards would also be based on the 2008 performances of brokers, not 2009’s performance.

Bank of America had also granted generous payments to Merrill’s top producing brokers.

James Wiggins, a Morgan Stanley spokesman, said that such payments were necessary and would come out of operating revenue, not government bailout funds. Morgan Stanley has received $10 billion, while Citigroup has received $50 billion.

“We are getting very heavily, aggressively recruited against,” he said. “It is important that we retain as many of our successful financial advisers as we can.”

Morgan Stanley was contacted by Mr. Cuomo’s office last week to discuss the potential retention payments, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

The awards were based on 2008's performance, in which the firm lost $27 BILLION. Damn, I wish that I could get an award for that kind of performance. I'd take a big steamy dump on the CEO's desk for an extra 500 large, too.

And the bonuses coming out of "operating funds" and not the "bailout money"... what a load of utter crap. I know that there are bookkeeping practices that keep those "funds" separate, and they are in place to protect the upper echelon's revenue stream.

I think "fraudulent conveyance" is the least of which needs to be asserted. I'd like to see these yahoos do prison time, and not in a minimum-security country-club prison either, but somewhere with communal showers and guys named Bubba who think you gots a purty mouth. And the whole investment banking enterprise should be completely rent asunder and destroyed, and seeded with salt and arsenic to make sure it never rises again.

I could really go on a tirade against publicly owned stocks as well, but I do believe that they have a place in providing capital growth for industry. I do think that they've become far too much of the tail that wags the dog though, and need to be curtailed to be healthy.

It's not gonna happen. The power elite is far too entrenched to let control go. They'll end up throwing a few goats to the sacrifice of the public altars and dig deep for a few years, and if a few million of the servant class have to die in the fires, it's a small price to pay.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 12th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
This is my favorite line:

"If that $3.6 billion had been evenly disbursed among Merrill’s work force each person would have received about $91,000. Instead, the top four bonus recipients received a total of $121 million, Mr. Cuomo wrote. "

I still remember when our CEO was getting $4 and $5 million dollar bonuses, but I couldn't get a reasonable base wage for my banking job.

Some people matter, some people don't.
Feb. 12th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
I ran into the same thing in my first job out of college. My work directly resulted in a $13M contract in a year when the total revenue of the company was $26M. I got a coffee cup, and the board of directors collectively got over $5M in bonuses. Later that year I was told that there wasn't enough money for raises.
Feb. 13th, 2009 06:24 pm (UTC)
They are all rat-fuckers.
Feb. 12th, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC)
Am I the only person who remembers that France had a problem like this? The solution was really, really ugly...
Feb. 12th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
At least with France, they were concerned enough to let us eat cake.

Am I the only one who believes that mortgages shouldn't be a commodity?
Feb. 13th, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
At least with France, they were concerned enough to let us eat cake.

Yes, but the cake was sweet and tastey, as opposed to the bread, which was contaminated with a hallucinogenic fungus.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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