Wall Street's Average Bonus in 2017? Three Times What Most Households Made All Year

March 26, 2018
Renae Merle

Wall Street bonuses are climbing toward record highs again, according to government data released Monday showing that in 2017, the average bonus payout reached $184,220.

That is a 17 percent increase compared to the previous year and the closest Wall Street has come in more than a decade to its all-time high of $191,360 in 2006, according to the New York state comptroller. It follows an 15 percent increase in 2016, when the average bonus was about $157,660.

The bigger bonuses reflect a revival on Wall Street as the Trump administration begins rolling back financial industry regulations. The recent sell-off in the markets is creating the kind of volatility that Wall Street traders thrive on. And the Federal Reserve has begun raising a key interest rate, making it easier for banks to make a profit. The financial industry’s revenue increased 4.5 percent last year to $153 billion, according to the New York state comptroller.

The government figures also continue to reflect how much more Wall Street executives earn compared to the rest of the private sector. Including bonuses, the average Wall Street salary was $375,200 in 2016, the most recent year available, five times as high as the rest of the private sector, with an average of $74,800, according to the comptroller’s office. In New York City, about 25 percent of the industry’s employees took home more than $250,000, compared with 2 percent in the rest of the city’s workforce, the report said. The median U.S. household income reached $59,039 in 2016, according to the Census Bureau.

“The large increase in profitability over the past two years demonstrates that the industry can prosper with the regulations and consumer protections adopted after the financial crisis,” Thomas P. DiNapoli, the New York comptroller.

The larger bonus pool was due, in part, to the sweeping changes to the tax code passed last year that encouraged some banks to accelerate some pay and bonuses, industry experts said. Banks are expected to be among the biggest beneficiaries of lowering the corporate tax rate to 21 percent.

This comes at a time when efforts to rein in Wall Street pay are beginning to ease. In the 2010 financial reform package, known as the Dodd-Frank Act, lawmakers called for regulators to curb compensation that was considered excessive or pay that exposed a company to significant financial losses. But progress on the rules has been slow and is not expected to be a priority under the Trump administration.

Still, some regulators say the financial industry must work on not rewarding bad behavior. Regulations are not enough, New York Fed President William Dudley told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Monday. “We also need to focus on the incentives facing banks and their employees,” New York Fed President William Dudley said Monday in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “After all, misaligned incentives contributed greatly to the financial crisis and continue to affect bank conduct and behavior.”

The growing size of the bonuses is also contributing to a gender pay gap, industry and compensation experts say. The massive pool of Wall Street bonus money is distributed among the highest-ranking and highest-earning industry executives and employees. Women make up a small proportion of those employees.

Earlier this month, for example, Goldman Sachs said that in Britain its female employees receive an average hourly wage that is 56 percent lower than that of their male counterparts. The disparity is worse when factoring in the bank’s discretionary bonuses — the lifeblood of many large investment banks. The average bonus for a woman is 72 percent lower than it is for a man. New York-based Goldman Sachs blamed the pay gap on the lack of women in its highest-paying senior positions. Women make up 17 percent of the top quartile of the bank’s highest-paid workers in Britain, the bank said.

“The massive size of the Wall Street bonuses is disturbing not just because of how it contributes to economic inequality in this country,” said Sarah Anderson, the global economy project director at the Institute for Policy Studies. “It’s also a sign that the reckless Wall Street bonus culture, which contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, continues to flourish.”

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