Really what difference does it make why? The real questions are, is it the right thing and will it diminish public criticism? After all, according to one CEO, these firms are doing "God's Work."
Employees at the big bailout firms stand to make even bigger gains for last year's debacle than previously imagined. With the help of friends in high places, the "too-big-to-fail" banks have roared back to the top of the charts and execs expect to be paid for it. Bonuses are to be announced in late January and early February and are guaranteed to stir up ire among the long-suffering public. Some of Goldman's efforts to soothe public resentments have included earmarking $500m for "small business education in community colleges" and $61m more to build urban affordable housing. Global investment banks are considering making employee tithing an official part of their business model.
Wall Street firms, including the greed-is-good 1980s Solomon Brothers, have long given back to the community. Junk Bond King Michael Milken has been one of the financial industries largest philanthropists since his release from prison in 1993. George Soros who "broke the Bank of England" has been an unceasing benefactor for many of the world's neediest for decades.
Three of the biggest contributors to the fallen firefighters' widows and children funds after the September 11 attacks were Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs. All the big Street firms gave hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the city and honor its fallen heroes. No one in New York ever forgot that.
So what is different now? Isn't this what capitalism is all about? Making a profit and circulating it back to the people? Of course. Yet any firm that used bailout funds to get back on its feet is no longer viewed as a pure capitalistic venture. With the official label of "too-big-to-fail," the public sees these firms as government-backed. Therefore the old rules of capitalism no longer apply. Giving a portion of profits to personal charities does little for those losing their homes or the millions of middle-class jobless who took the fall for others.
Business has an obligation to give back to the community that supports it. Therefore, charitable giving is a basic reality for any profitable company. However, in the past year it has become unmistakably clear that business also has an obligation not to profit by exploiting that community.
A great example of this model is the former investment bank Bear Stearns. The Bear was one of the most reckless subprime mortgage securities houses leading to the financial crisis. In the 2000's, Bear Stearns also set the trend for "giving" by requiring top executives to contribute 4% of their income to charity. Levered at over 40 to one, Bear's flimsy underwriting standards and outsized trading risk brought the behemoth firm down. Following in its footsteps were Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, both high flying mortgage market makers and generous patrons. The loss of Lehman and Bear to the greater New York not-for-profit community has been heart-breaking.
Yet charitable giving by these firms has not made up for the financial devastation left behind in their wake. Donating 4% to a favorite charity while crushing the working and middle classes has not satisfied stressed taxpayers. The same people who lost their incomes and perhaps their homes directly due to market mayhem are asked to accept charitable donations to quell their rage. Hardly a reasonable offering.
While firms cannot earmark 10% of profits for philanthropy without enraging shareholders, they can invoke the "charity clause." Setting aside 5-10% of earnings for top producers to support a special community fund might establish better relations with the public after all - if that fund is funneled into a program that supports those affected directly.
For example, Goldman has set aside $16bn in a 2009 bonus pool. What if $1.6bn of this executive fund was used to finance small business
loans at zero percent, refinance at-risk homeowners, pay a portion of monthly mortgage payments for unemployed homeowners, or seed money to social entrepreneurship start-ups who guarantee they will hire U.S. workers? These may be highly unusual solutions for profit-seeking Wall Street, but these extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.
This week, the top banking chiefs expressed mia culpa for the industry's part in the economic crisis. Apologies are due, but actions are imperative. Earmarking a portion of bonus checks to plaster your name above the public library door isn't going to relieve suffering or reduce anger. Real and effective solutions to current economic dilemmas are expected from both the government and financial industry.
To calm the ire of the seething public, firms do need to acknowledge their part in the nation's misery, but not by following the path of Gilded Age robber barons. The way to rectify ongoing economic fallout is not through subjective "charitable giving," but through genuine proactive restitution and reform.