Simon Johnson

How Should Goldman Sachs Cover its Ass This Bonus Season?

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Sources say that Goldman Sachs’s bonuses will be announced on Monday, January 18, and actually paid sometime between February 4 and February 7. In previous years, the bonuses were paid in early January--but the financial year shifted when Goldman became a bank holding company.

For critics of the company and its fellow travelers, the timing could not be better.

Anxiety levels about the financial sector are on the increase, even on Capitol Hill. The tension between high profits in banking and stress in the rest of the economy becomes increasingly a topic of discussion across the nation.

And you are hard pressed to find any government official who has not by now woken up--in private--to the dangerous hubris of big banks. To add insult to injury (and many other insults), the Bank for International Settlements is holding a meeting to discuss excessive risk-taking in the financial sector; according to CNBC Thursday morning, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase were invited but did not show up (they really are very busy).

The smart strategy for Goldman in this context would be to pay no bonus for 2009 (in cash, stock or any other form), but this is not possible for three reasons.

(1) Goldman would need to make a credible commitment to employees to “take care of them next year.” But any legally binding commitment would be as good as a cash bonus (who knows, they could even be traded over-the-counter). And any verbal promises would be completely noncredible--among other things, Goldman cannot know for sure how the coming perfect storm will play out: the supertax on bankers in Europe, Sheila Bair’s good idea of tying deposit insurance premiums to the risk in banks’ compensation structures, Hank Paulson’s memoir on February 1, Chris Dodd’s resignation and the collapse of any meaningful Obama financial reform--allowing the Democrats to wake up to how they can run hard against Big Finance in 2010, etc. And besides, how much would you trust your boss at Goldman? The old culture there is gone.

(2) For all their communication blunders in recent months (internally they wince at “God’s work“), the responsible executives think they can hide the size of the bonuses or talk more about how stock and option grants encourage the right kind of behavior or put in some sophisticated clawback language. Some of the best lawyers in the country are working very hard on this question, but it’s all for naught. The headline bonus number will be at least $20 billion and if they try to hide this with sophisticated mumbo-jumbo, that will only bring greater attention and spread the pain over many news cycles as we run through denials, further exposures, more denials, and damning details. When you’re in a hole, stop digging--Goldman is talking with top p.r. consultants; perhaps they should bring in Tiger Woods to advise on this point.

(3) The most important reason is also Goldman’s greatest weakness: Throughout the organization, people really think they are worth the money. But remember these facts and keep track of how many times you hear them repeated: Goldman Sachs essentially failed in September 2008; it was saved by extraordinary and unprecedented government efforts at the end of September and subsequently (particularly through its conversion to a bank holding company, which gave access to the Fed’s discount window); partly this treatment was shaped by the special favor with which Hank Paulson viewed Goldman (documented in nauseating detail in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail); and the strategy of allowing Goldman to recapitalize through taking huge risk with an unconditional government guarantee in 2009 only makes sense if they use the proceeds to boost their capital--not if they pay out massive bonuses. In any reasonable economic analysis, the entire bonus pool at Goldman should be paid--with gracious thanks--to the government.

The refrain that will be repeated by Goldman executives is: We need to pay the bonuses in order to keep the best people. But think about this like a stockholder for a moment--where exactly would these people go to work if this year’s bonus is set at zero?

Among the Casino Banks, Goldman is currently the best place to work and, looking forward, that’s where folks will make the most money. Hedge funds are not hiring in large numbers--most of the new financial sector jobs are at the other Too Big To Fail firms, who are now bringing people back (naturally).

Goldman’s management should come to its senses and pay no bonuses of any kind to anyone; no good people would leave. Fortunately, while the executives who run Goldman are smart, they are not that smart. The bonuses they announce on January 18 and pay in early February will become the rallying point for real reform.

[Cross-posted at The Baseline Scenario.]

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