Who cares if Wall Street 'talent' leaves?

If lower pay lures some of Wall Street's finest away, so be it. It's not as if the best and brightest were doing a good job to begin with.

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By Colin Barr, senior writer

ken_feinberg_090610.03.jpg
Kenneth Feinberg is reining in pay at 7 big bailout recipients.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- There's no need to fear a Wall Street brain drain -- despite the crackdown on pay by Washington.

On Thursday, White House pay czar Kenneth Feinberg outlined compensation restrictions at seven firms that got special bailouts, and the Federal Reserve proposed to review pay practices at 28 unnamed giant banks.

Critics warn that reining in pay makes it hard to keep talented employees. Hemmed in, institutions like AIG (AIG, Fortune 500),Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) and Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) could lose their best people.

These firms would then perform even more abysmally, if that's possible, leaving them hard pressed to repay tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer-backed loans.

Still, we say Godspeed to this "talent." After all, the traders and suits in the corner offices don't exactly have an unblemished track record. In 2008, Citigroup, BofA and Merrill Lynch (since acquired by BofA) posted a grand total of $51 billion in losses.

Yet even as they were running themselves into the ground, the firms managed to pay out more than $12 billion in bonuses -- including 1,606 million-dollar-plus bonuses, according to a report from the New York attorney general's office.

"Even a cursory examination of the data suggests that in these challenging economic times, compensation for bank employees has become unmoored from the banks' financial performance," the report said.

Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine that defection-hit firms would have a lot of trouble finding qualified replacements in the current job market.

Unemployment has doubled nationally since December 2007, when the recession started. Securities industry employment has fallen 10% nationwide and 14% in New York from a mid-2008 peak, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, costing some 90,000 jobs in the U.S.

And Goldman Sachs' (GS, Fortune 500) charm offensive notwithstanding, it looks like the official response to runaway pay is just starting.

The Fed's plan to weigh big banks' compensation plans against their potential for undermining the economy could eventually put pressure on pay at all the big banks.

"This could be a game changer," said Simon Johnson, an economist at MIT. "There will be a lot of pressure on them in Congress to stick it to the big firms."

But maybe the best reason not to fret about talent flight is one familiar to cubicle dwellers everywhere: just because someone has a big, high-paying job doesn't mean they're good at it.

Take Bank of America, for instance. The bank's longtime CEO, Ken Lewis, unexpectedly announced his retirement this month, while agreeing to give back his 2009 salary.

Lewis didn't say why he was leaving, but it seems that criticism over his empire building, mishandling of the Merrill acquisition and outsize pay got to him. The Charlotte Observer reported he had grown tired of the "mud being thrown on him day by day."

Another helping or two of that mud could be just what Wall Street needs. To top of page

Company Price Change % Change
Advanced Micro Devic... 26.68 -0.82 -2.98%
AT&T Inc 32.19 0.39 1.23%
General Electric Co 9.88 -0.12 -1.20%
Bank of America Corp... 28.40 0.00 0.00%
Apple Inc 183.09 -5.91 -3.13%
Data as of May 20
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 25,679.90 -84.10 -0.33%
Nasdaq 7,702.38 -113.91 -1.46%
S&P 500 2,840.23 -19.30 -0.67%
Treasuries 2.42 0.02 0.96%
Data as of 1:05am ET
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