Despite Turmoil, Wall Street Bonuses Survive

Chaos in the financial system may translate into better than expected bonuses for Wall Street.

Yes, you read right. While the outlook is pretty grim, at least compared to last year's $33.2 billion bonanza, compensation consultants expect a 30% to 50% decline in payouts this year, but billions will still flow.

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The bonus pool is being artificially inflated by a combination of job losses (meaning fewer people sharing the smaller pot), merger guarantees and efforts to retain or attract key employees. Some workers will get nothing for sure, especially on desks that have had the worst performance. Senior-most executive officers will probably see their bonuses slashed 70% to 100%, according to Alan Johnson of Johnson Associates.

But others, especially stars, and those in well-performing groups, will get their millions. "There are people doing well," says Johnson, an executive pay consultant who specializes in Wall Street compensation. "Accruals are down, but not as much as you would think."

If Johnson's predictions hold out, Wall Street's 2008 bonus pool will be $19.9 billion to $23 billion. Johnson compares the current downturn to the 2001-2002 period, only then there was not this "artificial prop up" of the bonus pool. "On a purely Darwinian basis, bonuses would be down a lot more," he says of this time around.

Through the first nine months of this year, combined net revenues for Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are down 27%, to $202 billion, according to their quarterly financial statements.

Compensation costs for investment banks like Goldman are typically close to half of revenues, but bonuses are just one component of that. Base salary and benefits make up about 60% of a firm's reported compensation costs. The rest is in incentive and other deferred compensation.

The same banks collectively recorded $97 billion in compensation expenses so far this year, a drop of just 7.4% from last year. Again, bonuses are just a portion of this expense.

Lehman set aside $6.1 billion so far this year, Citi, $25.8 billion, JPMorgan $17.6 billion, Bank of America $14.3 billion, Goldman $11.4 billion, Merrill $11.2 billion, and Morgan Stanley $10.7 billion.

All of them, except for Lehman, will get $125 billion from the Federal government's efforts to rescue the financial system, and in individual amounts that equal or exceed those accrued compensation numbers. Citigroup, for example, is getting a $25 billion infusion of government money.

Banks are bound to be sensitive to the political and public relations problems associated with paying blockbuster bonuses, but that's not going to stop them from paying something, most likely in the form of stock. Deferred stock awards, which don't have to be added to expenses until they vest, will likely be a popular way of rewarding employees this year.

"We expect to see cash drop quite significantly," says David Schmidt, a pay consultant at James F. Reda & Associates.

Given that there are a lot fewer workers on Wall Street these days than there were last year, those who are getting bonuses may benefit from not having to share the pot with as many colleagues. Then again, they may just feel lucky to have a job.

New York's Independent Budget office forecast 20,000 job cuts earlier this year, but the actual number is now expected to exceed that by a long shot. At Merrill Lynch alone, the job losses could total 10,000 as the company merges with Bank of America, says Ladenburg Thalmann Analyst Richard Bove. Barclays is also seen cutting thousands of jobs as it acquires Lehman Brothers' U.S. brokerage operations.

Guarantees are complicating pay matters this year. Along with its acquisition of Lehman operations, Barclays inherited a $2.5 billion bonus accrual fund for New York-based Lehman employees, an amount greater than the $1.7 billion it is paying for the company. Angry Lehman workers in London wanted to know why they didn't have access to a similar pool.

The $2.5 billion pool, which was kept separate from Lehman's bankruptcy filing, works out to $250,000 for each New York-based Lehman employee, which is better than the $180,000 average Wall Street bonus in 2007, when Lehman was still a solvent company. Barclays says the money is an accounting accrual and that it has no obligation to use it to pay bonuses.

Firms are also under pressure to pay bonuses to keep some workers from walking across the street to a rival. And then there are the sign-on bonuses banks paid so far this year. Merrill's John Thain was particularly active at that game. He snagged Thomas Montag, a star Goldman trader, with a promise of a $39 million sign-on bonus for this year. Montag could get millions more, too, in stock if he leaves in Merrill's change of control.

Banks may not have to pay up as much to retain lower-level worker bees, because there are simply fewer competitors to snatch them away. Bear Stearns and Lehman are gone, Merrill is being merged into Bank of America, and hedge funds, the greener pastures of the last few years, are also ailing.