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Wall Street's Marie Antoinette

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As if Goldman Sachs did not already have enough image problems as the biggest pig at the Wall Street trough, it is now the most serious contender for the 2009 Marie Antoinette Award, which recognizes singular achievements in out-of-touch condescension.

Goldman has made no secret of the fact that it has set aside some $16.7 billion to be paid out to its employees as bonuses for the year 2009.  Now, this is a pretty big pile of money to have amassed just one year after coming close to a meltdown and accepting government (i.e., taxpayer) funds.   In fact, it’s more than just pretty big, it’s obscene.

It’s big enough and obscene enough to make ordinary people who are struggling to find jobs, pay the bills, keep the house out of foreclosure, etc. want to do things to Goldman that usually only happen in chainsaw movies.  After all, these people figure, we pulled their butts out of the fire with taxpayer money and now they’re rubbing our noses in these outlandish bonuses only a year later.

These violent urges are compounded by the knowledge that Goldman’s excesses are part of what brought about the severe unemployment situation, the cratering housing market and the all but invisible credit market.

This rage is strong enough that it apparently has reached the ivory towers of the executive suites of Wall Street and caused some (minor) tremors.  What if the politicians who up to now have been in our pockets grab hold of this rage and use it to start fencing us in?  Or the more likely scenario: What if this rage becomes so strong that these politicians have no choice but to grab hold of it, even if they don’t want to leave our pockets?

In the face of this, Goldman’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein apologized, sort of.  Just recently he said, “We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret.  We apologize.”

But as we all know, words are cheap.  So Goldman decided to put some of its money where its mouth is.  It announced that it would be taking $500 million of that $16.7 billion and using it to support some 10,000 small businesses.  That is, it would take $100 million a year for 5 years to finance that support.

Do the calculation and you come up with 3% of the bonus pool.  I’m sure Goldman is hoping that this pittance will satisfy the rabble and calm them down. 

However, for a company that has no trouble whatsoever putting two and two together, it is likely that this gesture will prove to be a rather large miscalculation.  It’s hard to think of any act in the last few years that smacks more of “Let them eat cake” condescension.

And so, my friends, it is for these crumbs that Goldman is crowned the winner of the 2009 Marie Antoinette Award.  

May Goldman’s reputation for insufferable condescension live as long as the award’s namesake.  And may that reputation start to have a corrosive effect on the only place for which Goldman has any real feeling—its bottom line.


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