The return of the plutocrats

By Felix Salmon
December 3, 2009
TARP repayment give it a bit more wiggle room in terms of CEO compensation, thereby broadening the field of potential successors to Ken Lewis? Will General Motors be able to find a CEO when it's state-owned and therefore probably won't be able to pay a typical private-sector salary? Will Goldman Sachs be able to persuade shareholders that its $16 billion bonus pool is reasonable?

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It’s December, which means it’s bonus season, and time for more than the usual amount of bellyaching about pay. Will Bank of America’s TARP repayment give it a bit more wiggle room in terms of CEO compensation, thereby broadening the field of potential successors to Ken Lewis? Will General Motors be able to find a CEO when it’s state-owned and therefore probably won’t be able to pay a typical private-sector salary? Will Goldman Sachs be able to persuade shareholders that its $16 billion bonus pool is reasonable?

Meanwhile, there’s an even bigger row over pay at state-owned banks across the pond, with RBS’s directors threatening to resign en masse if the Treasury vetoes its bonus plan.

The underlying problem here is a fundamental disconnect between the plutocrats and the people. Politicians and their constituents simply have no time any more for people paying themselves multi-million-dollar salaries, especially when the companies in question only exist in their present form thanks to hundreds of billions of dollars in government interventions.

Back in March, at what was in hindsight the low point for both the markets and for political sentiment more generally, I genuinely feared class warfare. I don’t think we’re there any more: it’s hard to keep that angry for that long, and feelings have become a little more muted. But that doesn’t mean that the anger has disappeared entirely.

We’re at a fork in the road right now. People who were comfortable with seven- and eight-figure salaries a couple of years ago have a natural tendency to want to return to the status quo ante; the rest of us see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring executive pay down to the kind of levels which normal human beings can relate to. Given that the pay levels of old clearly did no good and colorably did a great deal of harm, that doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request. But there aren’t any mechanisms in place to make it happen, and when the likes of Kenneth Feinberg try to impose some kind of sense and order, the immediate reaction is to try to wriggle out from under his oversight.

So the plutocrats, it seems are going to win. They had a nasty couple of years, by plutocrat standards, and in a handful of companies operating under de facto state control they don’t quite have the free rein they would ideally like. But the system as a whole hasn’t changed, and those who thought that it might can’t quite believe how naive they were.

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