The financial reform bill that a congressional committee put the finishing touches on last week was proof enough that Wall Street, not Washington, has the upper hand in this postmeltdown world.
In the end, "too big to fail" banks like JPMorgan Chase
But maybe you're not yet convinced that Wall Street is winning. Well, here are a few more signs that Wall Street is ready to flip all of us the bird and get back to doing ... well, whatever the heck it wants to do.
The return of the guarantee
The hiring crush is back on Wall Street. BusinessWeek reported earlier this week that 6,800 financial industry positions were added between February and May. Some of this is from firms like Morgan Stanley
Big deal, right? The economy is recovering (albeit haltingly), so we shouldn't be too surprised to see hiring start to spring up in many parts of the economy. However, what's particularly worrisome about this hiring burst is the way employees are being attracted. As BusinessWeek notes:
The demand for investment bankers and traders has led some firms to offer pay packages as high as $8 million, including guaranteed bonuses, which are paid regardless of an employee's or the company's performance, recruiters said.
Hey, banking industry, 2007 called and it wants its idiotic pay practices back.
Not that regulators have completely missed the fact that risky pay packages haven't disappeared from the banking repertoire. Earlier this month, Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke spoke out on the issue, saying: "We found that many banks have not modified their practices from what they were before the crisis ... We will be pushing banks to move as quickly as possible to restructure their compensation packages so that they will not be engendering excessive risk-taking."
That certainly sounds good, but we're already three years or so from the beginning of the financial crisis and regulators haven't been particularly successful staring Wall Street down thus far. So I don't think I can be blamed when I say that I'll believe it when I see it.
The big payday, multiplied by thousands
Of course it's not just hiring trends that suggest that big pay on Wall Street is on its way back. After the bubble burst in 2007, Wall Street pay fell drastically, but it's been creeping back up ever since.
Take a look at total compensation for banks Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs
Source: author's calculations and Capital IQ, a Standard & Poor's company. LTM = last 12 months.
While we may not see the industry hit that 2007 peak again soon, continued hiring and the use of big, flashy pay packages means that total industry pay is set to continue its upward march.
What does that leave us with? A handful of huge, powerful banking and securities firms that snap up the country's talent, are politically untouchable, and make (at best!) very questionable contributions to the country's economic wellbeing.
Is it just me or does it sound like we're back at square one?
Time to put away the soapbox?
I keep railing away at this topic because it seems absolutely ludicrous to me that we just went through one of the worst financial crises that the country has ever seen and the government is giving the financial firms at the heart of it a true kid-glove treatment. Heck, even the rules that did end up in the final bill have no teeth. As Bloomberg reported yesterday, banks including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup may have until 2022 to get in compliance with the watered-down version of the Volcker rule that made it into the bill.
So is it of any use at this point? When Congress finishes its final round of horse-trading -- which will only water down the bill further -- it will get signed into law and everyone in Washington will pat themselves on the back and convince themselves that since the darn thing is 2,000 pages, it must be a job well done. Then they'll move on to the next item on the to-do list.
But I want to know what you think. Is there any hope at all that Congress will realize that more has to be done? Or will we just have to wait for the next financial crisis for them to figure out that their "sweeping reform" did very little? Head down to the comments section and share your thoughts.
With financial reform missing the mark, I think big banks could be a short-term opportunity. But they're hardly the biggest investment opportunity of the year.