One interesting piece of information caught the eye in Paul Barry’s fantastic series on Hosni Mubarak’s missing billions in Crikey — that is, the money which was allegedly “legitimately earned” by his son, investment banker, Gamal Mubarak. This raises the interesting question — is monies earned by investment bankers really any more legitimate than monies stolen by dictators?

Quoting Australian lawyer David Chaikin, the money-laundering expert who helped trace Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos’ millions, Barry noted that “Gamal has been an investment banker for years and may well have earnt tens of millions of dollars legitimately … even if he got the money by having the inside running on Egypt’s privatization deals. That’s going to complicate matters.”

But don’t think it is a bizarre state of affairs where an investment banker, can “legitimately earn” tens of millions of dollars. This, in fact, is hardly unusual for investment bankers (let alone those who are the offspring of dictators). Last year, one Melbourne investment banker received a “sign on” fee of $10 million dollars to switch from one US investment bank to another. Both of those banks had been the recipient of billions of dollars of US-taxpayer funded assistance.

However, the real money in recent years hasn’t been earned by the traditional “investment bankers”. That is, the old school bankers who advise companies on mergers and capital raisings (that is not to say they don’t get paid a lot, but we are talking in relative terms here). Rather, it is the proprietary traders and salespeople who sell esoteric and complicated financial instruments who have really cleaned up. Many of these people are the same people who were played a part in causing the global financial crisis.

Michael Lewis, the author of the legendary 1980s Wall Street tale, Liar’s Poker, recently finished his latest tome called The Big Short. In The Big Short, Lewis investigated the hedge fund gurus who foresaw and profited from the US sub-prime crisis, and the investment bankers who facilitated (and in some cases, lost billions themselves) in the whole mess.

What is most telling about Lewis’ book was not how a bunch of no-name hedge fund managers foresaw the crisis, or even the incompetence of the ratings agencies who rated toxic waste sub-prime assets “AAA”, but rather, how the bankers and bank executives who literally lost billions of dollars themselves walked away very, very rich.

As Lewis noted:

“…the people on the short side of the sub-prime mortgage market [that is, the people who foresaw the sub-prime collapse] gambled with the odds in their favour. The people on the other side, the entire financial system, essentially — had gambled with the odds against them…What’s strange and complicated about it, however, is that pretty much all the important people on both sides of the gamble left the table rich.”

Howie Hubler, an aggressive Morgan Stanley trader who managed to lose US$9 billion of the bank’s capital on a single bet involving sub-prime CDOs was paid tens of millions of dollars and allowed to resign (rather than be sacked, as someone who lost billions of dollars through stupidity should). Another, Wing Chau, whose company sold toxic CDO’s would make tens of millions of dollars before his company went bankrupt.

Worst of all, as Lewis noted:

“…the CEOs of every major Wall Street firm were also on the wrong end of the gamble. All of them, without exception, either ran their public corporations into bankruptcy or were saved from bankruptcy by the United States government. They got rich too.”

But the story certainly isn’t over. Those very same investment banks, which sucked on the taxpayer teat for survival, are once again lavishing bonuses on employees.

Earlier this year, Citigroup, which would have almost certainly died without tens of billions of dollars of direct assistance and more than US$300 billion in taxpayer guarantees, paid its top 15 executives more than US$50 million in bonuses. Goldman Sachs, who last year paid more than US$500 million to settle claims of misleading investors paid employees an average bonus of US$430,700 while Morgan Stanley set aside US$7 billion for employee remuneration.

It appears that autocratic rulers aren’t the only ones who make ill-gotten gains.