But on another level, some of the Street's mystery comes from the massive numbers that it bandies about. While a billion dollars is easy enough to understand in concept -- it's simply the number one followed by nine zeroes -- the actual magnitude of the sum is hard to imagine.
In the height of the financial boom, some traders jokingly measured the money they earned in terms of "bottles," specifically, the price of bottle service at a fancy New York bar or nightclub. In this manner, they could reduce a large sum, like a $75,000 price tag on a car, to a relatively manageable 150 bottles of premium vodka, served tableside.
For a different view of Wall Street's and Corporate America's unimaginable salaries, we took a similar approach. Except, rather than measuring the Street's impressive compensation packages through the lens of hyperinflated booze, we went with a more common number: $49,777. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this was the median income of an American household -- defined as 2.59 people -- in 2009.
Higher Salaries, Smaller Bonuses
Year-end bonuses are a useful place to begin comparing big business salaries to regular incomes. For years, many of America's top financial firms paid relatively small salaries but augmented them with huge bonuses -- a policy that, according to regulators, led workers to engage in risky deals in the hope of reaping short-term gains.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, one of Wall Street's biggest changes was that many firms raised salaries but cut bonuses. At Goldman Sachs (GS), for example, the base salary for a managing director jumped from $300,000 to $500,000 -- or, to put it another way, it went from the yearly income of six average American households to the yearly income of 10.
But these salary jumps came with some harsh cuts and a few bruised feelings. In a recent article, Esquire's Foster Kamer noted that the 2010 bonus allowance at Wall Street's top five firms was $90 billion, or more than the combined GDP of 13 countries. In terms of average incomes, this is equivalent to the yearly pay of more than 1.8 million American households, or almost 4.7 million people. That represents the combined population of Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska, with Kansas City, Mo., thrown in for good measure.
Still, many executives have grumbled about the new pay structure. In a poll of 98 financial-sector workers, Kamer found that 56% felt their bonuses were too low. The New York Times also explored these hapless workers, some of which it dubbed "the Zeroes," because they received no bonuses.
One Wall Street executive, speaking anonymously, told the Times about his company's response to the complaints: "We'll throw $20,000 or $25,000 at each of the Zeros so they're not discouraged." That means the nameless executive's company chose to give each of its complaining workers between 40% and 50% of an average American household's income in order to keep its lower-achieving employees from getting too down in the mouth.
Salaries That Exceed a Small Town's
While year-end bonuses offer an interesting glimpse into the money being disbursed in America's executive boardrooms, they increasingly pale in comparison to the actual paychecks going out. For example, Goldman Sachs's Lloyd Blankfein made $8.25 million 2009, the equivalent of 165 household incomes. But Wall Street doesn't have a monopoly on outsize pay. Take Martha Stewart, whose $9.7 million could support a good-size suburban housing development of 197 families.
Blankfein's and Stewart's salaries pale beside the yearly compensation of America's best-paid CEOs. For example, the $15.2 million that JPMorgan Chase's (JPM) Jamie Dimon earned is equivalent to that of a 305-family town. And Abercrombie & Fitch's (ANF) Michael Jeffries made $36.3 million in 2009, a princely sum that could keep 729 households in jeans and sweaters.
But of course, Jeffries' salary is tiny in comparison to Oracle's (ORCL) Larry Ellison (pictured above), who made $84.5 million in 2009. Even this, however, was a significant drop from 2008, when he banked $543 million after exercising 36 million stock options. Enough money to support 10,908 families, Ellison's stock options yielded the yearly pay of a small city.
While amazing, the $543 million that Larry Ellison made in 2008 is cab fare compared with his personal fortune. With more than $27 billion, he ranks third on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. This impressive sum equals the yearly pay earned by 542,419 average American households, or slightly more than the population of Hawaii.
As Ellison demonstrates, technology can be very good to a chief exec. For instance, America's richest citizen, Bill Gates, former CEO and chairman of Microsoft (MSFT), is currently worth roughly $54 billion, a fortune that's equivalent to the yearly income of 1,084,838 households, or just over 2.8 million people. Gates's bank account could cover the payroll of a population roughly equivalent to Chicago.
Since Jesus's Day
Most of the Forbes 400 earned their money, but many of the list's members inherited their wealth -- or married someone who did. The fourth-richest person on the list, Christy Walton, is the widow of John Walton, son of the founder of Walmart (WMT). With $24 billion in the bank, she's sitting on a fortune equal to the yearly pay of 482,150 average households. Christy Walton's wealth is the same as the combined lifetime earnings of 240 households -- if those households had begun earning at the time Jesus was born and were still hard at work.
While the Waltons are the wealthiest family in America, they're joined by several others, some of which have very famous names. For example, three members of the Mars family -- John, Jaqueline and Forrest -- share position No. 26 on the list. Grandchildren of the famous candy innovators, the trio has a combined bank account of $30 billion, a sum equal to 602,687 families. A little further down, New York's Leonard Lauder, son of makeup innovator Estee Lauder, is sitting at No. 66. Clinging to a comparatively anemic $4.2 billion, his wealth could fund only 84,376 households, a group slightly smaller than the population of Reno, Nev., or Hialeah, Fla.
A Little Perspective
On one level, comparing the personal finances of America's wealthiest citizens to those of its average Joes and Josephines creates a bizarre sort of disconnect. After all, while Michael Bloomberg's $18 billion is undoubtedly impressive, it's hard to believe that the New York mayor's bank account equals the yearly income of a population the size of Montana or Detroit. Yet, while CEO compensation packages have continued to go up, the median family income has dropped over the past two years, creating an ever-broadening expanse between the majority of middle America and the country's wealthiest sliver.
This disparity is hard to imagine. A recent study concluded that America's richest 20% held 85% of its wealth. While shocking, those numbers were hard to envision. The vast gap between the classes becomes easier to visualize when one considers that Larry Ellison's yacht cost $200 million (4,017 households) or that Aaron Spelling's widow lives in a house that cost $150 million (3,013 households).
When it comes to understanding America's wealthiest, the key may lie in translating abstract, gargantuan sums into real, human terms.