Have you ever wondered why Wall Street was able to get $23.7 trillion from the federal government after making some bad bets that wiped out $30 trillion in stock market value worldwide and helped throw 15.1 million people out of work? Are you curious about how Wall Street's workers will earn record bonuses of $140 billion for 2009, according to The Wall Street Journal, while average folks, such as former airline captain Bryan Lawler take 50 percent pay cuts, according to The New York Times? Well, look no further than the office of the secretary of the treasury.
Before detailing how Wall Street has funneled cash there, it's worth noting that the financial industry really has far broader tentacles into Washington. After all, it spent $5 billion on campaign contributions and lobbying expenses between 1999 and 2008. This cash permeates Washington, and with the cost of getting elected and re-elected rising ever higher, we have the best government money can buy.
This brings us to a report by Bloomberg which reveals that aides to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner earned millions of dollars from Goldman Sachs Group (GS), Citigroup (C), and other Wall Street financial powerhouses. Of all the things that surprised me, the biggest was that Bloomberg paid one of the formerly highest-paid of these folks -- Gene Sperling, who now advises Geithner -- $137,500 to write a monthly column and appear on TV. But Bloomberg is turning on Sperling now.
Bloomberg reveals that his more important pay packets -- totaling $2.2 million -- came from Wall Street's Illuminati, including:
- Goldman Sachs, which paid Sperling the $887,727 for advice on its charitable giving;
- The Philadelphia Stock Exchange, which funneled him $480,051 as a director;
- Two hedge funds -- Brevan Howard Asset Management LLP and Sterling Stamos Capital Management -- which delivered $250,000 to him for quarterly economic briefings;
- The Council on Foreign Relations, which forked over $116,653 for work related to education in developing countries;
- The Stanford Group Co., which paid him undisclosed speaking fees in November 2008 -- three months before the SEC sued its chairman, Alan Stanford, for allegedly stealing $7 billion from investors;
- And Citigroup, the recipient of up to $306 billion from taxpayers, which paid Sperling to speak at an event.
Another Geithner advisor, Lee Sachs, pulled in $3 million in salary and partnership income from hedge fund Mariner Investment Group.
So what is going on here? I haven't spoken to these folks, so I can only speculate that Wall Street pays them for their access to power. When they leave Washington, they go back to those lucrative jobs on Wall Street. And they get paid to keep Washington from crimping Wall Street's money-making style. Or maybe they're getting paid just for advice on charitable giving and educating the people of developing countries.
If that happens to hurt the other 99.99 percent of Americans who can't afford the billions needed to buy the government, who really cares? That's why I stand by my previous promise to dance the hula on Wall Street if meaningful financial reform becomes law.
Peter Cohan is a management consultant, Babson professor and author of nine books, including Capital Rising (due in June 2010). Follow him on Twitter. He owns Citigroup shares, but has no financial interest in the other securities mentioned.