Global bonus watch: Ireland to Wall Street

December 17, 2010: 11:23 AM ET

It's that time of year again -- time for holiday cheer, gift-giving, and bonus checks. Unless you're a banker in Ireland.

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At a time when big bonuses on Wall Street are once again expected to be plentiful, Ireland is reining in on bankers' bonuses as it deals with shoddy finances that nearly bankrupt the country.

Earlier this week, Allied Irish Bank (AIB), the lender that is being bailed out by the Irish government, decided not to award senior staff about $53 million in deferred bonuses from 2008 after the country's finance ministry intervened. In a letter to the bank, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan threatened to cut off further financial aid to Allied if it went ahead with the bonuses. Already, the bank has received 3.5 billion euros from the government.

Ireland's move comes after months of public outrage over the bonuses at a time when the country seeks an international bailout of 85 billion euros. The act was bold relative to the way the Obama administration has handled bonuses since the financial crisis in 2007. The Ireland economic crisis continues -- this morning Moody's downgraded the country's debt by a full five notches.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., payouts are expected to be just fine this season. While leaders at some banks, including Morgan Stanley (MS), have reportedly told employees to expect lower payouts than they received in 2009, the amounts are still staggering. Bonuses at the top three dozen publicly held securities and investment-services firms are expected to top $140 billion, according to a Wall Street Journal study. It noted that Goldman Sachs (GS) reserved $13 billion for compensation and bonuses during the first nine months this year – down 20% from the previous year but still totaling more than $367, 000 per employee.

As bonus rage continues on Main Street, it's hard not to wonder if the U.S. economy must be close to bankruptcy before anyone really curbs the lofty bonuses.

Wall Street pay came under attack in 2008 after the government intervened to rescue the financial industry without any strings attached on bonuses. Since the bailout funds came from taxpayer dollars, it's easy to see how some would want to scale down bonuses at the rescued banks. Indeed, bonuses in 2008 fell a bit compared to the previous year but only because much of it was paid in companies stocks whose prices fell to record lows at the time. But recall, the nearly $18 billion in bonuses in 2008 was enough to get President Obama shortly after his first days in office to call the bonuses "shameful."

Efforts to somehow control pay followed, but nothing much ever really materialized. And today, as most of the big banks have paid back their government bailouts, the argument to control bonuses appears to be waning – though the Obama administration has called to restructure bonuses so as to curb excessive risk taking.

It's anyone's guess what bonuses will total come January. Total pay might slip some, but to most Americans struggling with an unemployment rate near 10%, they'll still be lofty sums. And bailout money aside, Wall Street banks have also benefited from low interest rate policies and other government programs that the public will probably eventually have to pay for.

If anything, even if there's a moralistic ring to it, Elizabeth Warren, the Obama administration adviser responsible for setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, makes a telling point:

"For me, what an economic recovery is about is about what happens to American families. It's what happens in the real economy. It's whether or not families are building up wealth in their homes or whether or not their homes are dragging them over an economic cliff."

Ireland's finances might be in a much bigger mess than the U.S., but at least it got one thing right.

Also on Fortune.com:

Goldman execs catch a bonus break

Bonus rage returns

Treasury gets $12 billion Citi windfall

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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