Wall Street bonuses to top 2009

August 28, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Compensation consultant says Wall Street year-end bonus pay could reach $23 billion, the highest since the financial crisis.

wall-street-620xaFORTUNE -- Well, this ought to make Henry Paulson very sad.

The nation's five biggest banks are on track to pay out $127 billion in total compensation, including at least $23 billion in bonuses, this year. That's up from the $114 billion the banks shelled out to their employees in 2009. It translates to $149,472 per full-time employee for 2013, and is roughly triple the pay of the average American. The figures come from financial filings and the calculations of a top Wall Street compensation consultant.

In an article in Tuesday's New York Times, Paulson said he was disappointed by the size of the bonuses banks paid in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent bailout. The former Treasury Secretary says he was dismayed about the timing of the large 2009 bonuses. He believes the payouts turned the public against the government's Wall Street bailout, but I don't think it was ever that popular, bonuses or not.

Paulson has, at other times, more generally criticized Wall Street pay. In his book, On the Brink, Paulson said he would regularly "go off" in partner meetings at Goldman Sachs (GS), where he was the CEO before heading to the Treasury Department in 2006, about compensation. He told CNBC in 2010 that he used to tell fellow Goldmanites, "I hope you all understand ... people don't like you," when conversations about bonuses would come up. But Paulson took home nearly $102 million in his last three and a half years at Goldman, including an $18.7 million cash bonus for the first half of 2006 alone, so, you know, way to really set an example, Hank.

MORE: Hank Paulson: Why Fannie and Freddie remain a big threat

The Times says banks paid $140 billion in bonuses in 2009. But the paper almost certainly means total compensation, including salary and benefits (the $114 billion previously cited is for the top five banks only). It also says that bonuses peaked in 2009, which, too, appears to be wrong. According to this table from the New York comptroller's office, Wall Street bonuses totaled $22.5 billion in 2009. That was down, again according to the N.Y. comptroller, from 2006, when banks paid $34 billion. Last year, Wall Street firms paid out $20 billion in year-end payouts.

Alan Johnson, a top Wall Street compensation consultant, estimates that bonuses at Wall Street firms could be up as much as 15% this year, based on an increase in mergers and stock and bond underwriting. By Johnson's estimates year-end payouts could reach $23 billion, which would be the highest since the financial crisis, but is still 34% below Wall Street's 2006 pay peak.

All that makes Paulson's burning regret about the level of Wall Street compensation in 2009 kind of bizarre. Business was up in 2009, albeit with the help of bailouts and a disastrous 2008, and bonuses were blah. And bonuses were really down in 2008, to $17.6 billion, which is really the year of the bailout, and when anger over Wall Street pay boiled over, sparked by the revelation that even busted insurer AIG (AIG) was paying hefty bonuses.

Some have argued that instead of being focused on the level of Wall Street pay, what we should really be focused on is whether banker compensation reflects performance, and that it's not a game rigged to produce huge payouts even when banks, shareholders, and ultimately taxpayers, lose. That's what really caused the outrage in 2008. Wall Streeters got billions in bonuses even as their firms were headed for the dumps.

MORE: Morgan Stanley escapes financial crisis dragnet

But now the banks are making hefty profits again. According to Dealogic, Wall Street fees from underwriting are up 24% this year from the same period in 2009. Yet, bonuses are only expected to be up 2% from 2009. It's outrageous! Except, no, not really. It's still a heck of a lot of money.

And while bonuses are up, slightly, other things have changed. Johnson says restricted stock, as opposed to immediate cash payouts, now makes up as much as 80% of the year-end pay of top Wall Street executives, about double what it was five years ago. I would think that's enough of a change to help Paulson sleep at night. Or at least get his mind off Wall Street pay and onto the fact that the economic recovery that has followed the financial crisis has been pretty miserable, lending has just recently returned to normal, and that few bankers were ever punished for all the damage they did to the economy. But, hey, we've all got to pick our own regrets in life.

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