Wall Street Firms, Bruised And Struggling, Jettison Office Space

Here's one thing big banks have in common with protesters: Neither group is occupying Wall Street as much as they used to.

In an ongoing sign of the financial sector's struggle to adjust to life after the crisis and subsequent regulations, big banks continue to rid themselves of unnecessary office space in New York City. Financial institutions have plans to sell or sublet about 600,000 square feet of their Manhattan real estate, according to The Wall Street Journal -- a significant amount, though one that pales in comparison to the 6 million square feet that New York banks have let go of since 2008.

The shrinking physical presence of Wall Street firms mirrors the overall state of remission in the financial industry. In recent months, investor trepidation -- caused in part by the listless economy and in part by the specter of a debt default in Europe -- has muted much of the activity from which Wall Street makes a profit, and banks have been weathering both the scrutiny of regulators and the scorn of Occupy protesters.

There's also more tangible reasons to downsize: Some 200,000 financial-services jobs were lost in 2011, striking a blow especially to the sector's youngest employees, while many of the country's largest banks reported declines in earnings for the most recent quarter. Bonuses were smaller on the Street this year, and some companies are said to be considering pay freezes for employees -- again, something that could disproportionately affect the youngest and least experienced people on staff.

On Wall Street, some sense recent austerity measures could be part of a permanent shift to a new normal. One Wall Street employee recently told New York magazine that the pay levels seen before the crisis are "never really going to come back."

Among firms looking to unload some cubicle space, there may be no better example than Bank of America, whose higher-ups are reportedly considering selling all the company's offices, save for one in Charlotte and another in New York. Among big banks, BofA is arguably the most troubled at the moment, with plans to lay off 30,000 employees, and $335 million recently walking out the door in a settlement related to discriminatory lending practices at the bank's Countrywide division.

Still, despite their rocky year, Wall Street firms took in what most people would consider decent earnings. Bank of America, for example, reported $2 billion in profits for the fourth quarter of 2011, while Wells Fargo netted $4.1 billion and Citigroup made $1.16 billion for the quarter. And despite the slowdown in investor activity, securities and investment firms still managed to spend $97 million on political lobbying in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.