"Even if there are layoffs at bigger firms, we are seeing a resurgence of growth at smaller firms hiring that are more agile and out of the regulatory limelight," McCagg said. "That may be part of the driver of the optimism."
Depending on U.S. market conditions and the European crisis, the bigger story this year "may well be on how and how well ongoing employees are ultimately paid for 2012 vs. 2011," Foley said.
In Goldman Sachs' 2011 annual report released this year, the company gloats about how many job applicants pine away for positions at the company, saying almost 300,000 people applied for full-time positions at the financial company for 2010 and 2011. The company said it hired less than 4 percent of those applicants, and nearly nine out of ten people accepted a job offer.
The fact that companies are either stalling the timing of compensation or cutting back on bonuses altogether may place some finance job applicants on heightened alert.
Recruiting firm, The Options Group, reported on Tuesday that 45 to 60 percent of those financial professionals who received $1 million had deferred compensation in 2011. For those who earned $3 million, 75 to 80 percent of total compensation was deferred.
The Options Group also found that approximately 14 percent of financial services professionals reported receiving no bonus in 2011 compared to 6 percent who received no bonus last year.
"Similar to 2008, the firms that are in the strongest position are opportunistically hiring away the most talented professionals from competitors," Mike Karp, managing partner at The Options Group, said. "Without proprietary trading to support bank revenue growth in the U.S., banks have been focused on hiring professionals that can drive revenues through increasing market share."
Options Group also found 40 to 50 percent of bank professionals reported receiving less compensation in 2011. Of those that reported receiving compensation increases, most were vice president-level or below.
"All indicators have been signaling that the markets will continue to be very challenging," Karp said. "This is one year where I have personally seen banks and hedge funds that don't have to guarantee bonuses. People are joining with salaries and a leap of faith."
Karp said summer may be an ideal time for layoffs when both employers and employees use the mid-year to reflect on the second quarter, the health of a business and personal careers.
"If I was a life coach, I would say if this happens it's a good time to evaluate life. A lot of people choose not to be in financial services," he said. "It's a good time to diversify your career, especially in your 40s, versus in your 30s."
"Back in the day, when we were kids," Karp, 44, said, "we would see guys who were 47 and think they're reaching the end of their career, but now you can reinvent yourself at 45 or 50."