Nearly $300,000 Wall Street Paycheck Not What It Seems

An average compensation of $289,644 sounds pretty good for the population not working within a mile of the New York Stock Exchange.

But according to New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi in a new study, that is what the average salary is on Wall Street.

To be clear, that doesn't mean that all bankers make this much. It means that there is a large army of men and a few women who make much less -- and a few very, very wealthy individuals who make an astronomical sum of more.

First, this not the average salary -- it's the average compensation, which includes a bonus.

Most of the investment banks, asset managers and hedge funds structure their overall compensation on relatively low salaries and bonuses proportioned to the revenue generated by the employee.

For example, if you work on a team that helps one Fortune 500 company merge with another and that acquisition brings in $25 million in business for your firm, you can expect your bonus in January to include a small slice of that.

If you manage a portfolio of a billion dollars of someone else's money, you will likely share a percentage of the profit that you bring to that billion.

"It has been a good year for investment bankers. There have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions fueled by a rise in equity," said Andrew Barber, associate editor at Trader magazine.

Trader is a lifestyle magazine geared toward professional traders who Barber says likely bring home much more than the average from the recent study.

When Business Is Good, So Is Competition

According to the report, compensation on Wall Street increased almost 22 percent in 2004 and an additional 11.8 percent in 2005.

Barber says part of the reason for the increase is that when business is good, competition for top talent gets ferocious.

"Large Wall Street banks have been a magnet for top traders and top investment bankers," Barber said.

"Places like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs have had to work hard to keep their best employees," he said.

Whether it is marquee investment banks competing against one another for the talent, or hedge funds and asset management firms recruiting the same leaders, executive recruiting firms like the Gerson Group are at times almost tracking indexes of market confidence.

Maureen Brille, managing director of the Gerson Group, helps place some high-priced and high-value talent throughout the investment banking world.

"It's not about the money most of the time, it is about succeeding and excelling for most [of] our clients," she said.

When the overall compensation can include guaranteed bonuses or equity in a firm that could be in the seven- or eight-figure range for managing director level executives, not too many people are thinking about the $300,000 base salary.

While difficult to comprehend for those outside the business, people working in the profession justify their earnings in several ways.

"I've worked 80-hour weeks every year since I've come out of college, and when you think about the fact that I personally generated $185 million in revenue last year for my firm, my bonus seems appropriate," said a vice president level investment banker at a top tier Wall Street firm who asked to remain anonymous.

A Manhattan hedge-fund manager who took home more than $2 million last year said that he had generated wealth for his clients, and that none of them had complained about what they had paid him.

"It isn't like I'm making the money when they're not. When we have good years, everyone gets paid," he said.

Good Times in Cycles

Times are not always this good. Barber remembers that there have been lean times even in recent memory.

"Being an investment banker in 2001 and 2002 was about as easy a path to riches as being a stock trader in 1931," he said, referencing The Great Depression.

Brille also emphasizes that this is as pure a performance industry as there ever has been created.

"You have to produce every year. You have to be originating, bringing in business. Maintain long-term knowledge of the transactions, and you have to keep closing deals," she said.

While Trader magazine may be filled with advertisements for $300,000 cars and $10 million yachts, the irony is that some of the people who can afford these toys rarely have the time to enjoy them.

"Most of the people have to work tremendously long hours and spend a tremendous portion of their adult lives to reach that level. Having the time to enjoy them is another matter," Barber said.