Five straight quarters of losses and a 70 percent slide in its stock this year haven’t stopped Merrill Lynch & Co. from allocating about $6.7 billion to pay bonuses.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley, both still on track for profitable years, have set aside about $13 billion for bonuses after three quarters, down 28 percent from a year ago. Even some employees at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., which declared the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history last month, will get the same bonus they received a year ago.
The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, a $700 billion taxpayer bailout, public outcry over excessive pay and the demise of three of the biggest securities firms won’t deter Wall Street from offering year-end rewards to employees on top of their salaries, compensation experts say.
“Critical producers and critical managers will be retained with the same bonus they had last year,” said Robert Sloan, head of U.S. financial-services recruiting at Egon Zehnder International, a New York-based executive-search firm. “The others will see sharp cuts.”
Goldman, the biggest and most profitable Wall Street firm until it opted to become a bank holding company last month, has set aside about $6.85 billion for bonuses, or an average of $210,300 for each employee, down 32 percent from $339,400 a year ago. Morgan Stanley, the second-biggest securities firm until it also converted to a bank, has $6.44 billion for bonuses, or $138,700 per person, down 20 percent from last year. Both firms accrue a fixed percentage of their revenue for compensation, so the decline in bonus pools matches the drop in revenue.
The money Merrill has set aside for bonuses equates to an average $110,000 for each of its 60,900 people, up from $108,000 a year ago because more than 3,000 jobs have been cut.
The bonus figures are based on estimates that about 60 percent of the compensation and benefits expenses reported by the companies will be paid in year-end bonuses, as occurred in past years. Average bonuses aren’t an indication of how much any employee will receive, since payments range widely from assistants to top traders. Bonuses aren’t paid until the end of the fiscal year, so firms could choose to reallocate the funds.
“We are in the process of determining appropriate levels of year-end compensation, and no decisions have been made,” said Mark Lake, a spokesman at Morgan Stanley. Ed Canaday, a spokesman for Goldman in New York, declined to comment.
Merrill spokeswoman Jessica Oppenheim said the firm’s accrued bonuses aren’t down as much as those at Goldman and Morgan Stanley because the firm reduced expenses last year, when it also had a loss. Compensation costs are down 18 percent this year, compared with the first nine months of 2006, Merrill’s last profitable year.
`Moratorium on Bonuses’
A worldwide economic slowdown, caused in part by the financial industry’s losses, and a U.S. Treasury plan to spend $250 billion of taxpayer money buying stakes in banks, have made pay a political issue this year.
“There should be a moratorium on bonuses,” Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told reporters last week. “If nobody gave them, there wouldn’t be a competitive aspect.”
In Zurich, protesters blocked UBS AG’s private-banking branch on Paradeplatz last week to seek curbs on executive pay after Switzerland’s largest bank was forced to ask for government aid.
“I’m just flabbergasted that the financial community has failed to show any sense of leadership on this issue and doesn’t seem to understand how angry people are at them,” said Nell Minow, editor of Corporate Library, a Portland, Maine-based corporate-governance research firm. “They are just a bonus away from having the villagers come after them with torches.”
New York-based Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Merrill, Lehman and Bear Stearns Cos. awarded their employees a cumulative $145 billion in bonuses from 2003 through 2007, according to estimates based on company reports. That’s more than the annual gross domestic product of the Philippines. Last year the firms paid out a record $39 billion.
At the end of this year, companies may decide against paying the money accrued for bonuses and instead use part of it to cover severance costs, said Rose Marie Orens, a New York-based partner at Mercer, the human resources consulting unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos., who specializes in executive compensation for financial- service companies. Goldman and Morgan Stanley end their fiscal year in November, and Merrill’s ends in December.
“Whether what you see is what they’re going to pay, you can’t tell yet,” she said. “It’s highly unlikely they’ll add to those numbers and more likely they’ll bring them down.”
Lehman filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15. Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns were rescued in emergency sales to Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. Goldman and Morgan Stanley are each receiving $10 billion of capital from the government.
Bank of America is offering Merrill’s U.S. brokers bonuses of as much as 100 percent of the revenue they generate to keep them after the deal is complete, people briefed on the plan said last week. Scott Silvestri, a spokesman for Bank of America, declined to comment.
Employees at Lehman Brothers in Europe have been promised by their new owner, Nomura Holdings Inc., that they will receive the same bonus as last year, according to two people familiar with the situation. A Nomura spokesman declined to comment.
Share prices and profits have dropped more than bonuses so far. Goldman’s profit has fallen 47 percent this year, and the stock is down 53 percent. Morgan Stanley’s earnings have tumbled 41 percent, and the shares have shed 69 percent of their value.
“Performances have certainly not been what investors would expect,” said Daniel Moynihan, a principal at Compensation Resources Inc., a 25-year-old company in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey that advises companies on pay practices. Still, “smart companies are going to reward those people who performed well,” he said.
Even without bonuses, Wall Street’s traders and bankers typically receive salaries that range from $80,000 to $600,000 a year. That compares with the mean annual wage for the average U.S. employee of about $40,690 and a mean for CEOs of $151,370, according to a May 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
For many on Wall Street, those salaries aren’t enough. Top employees expect to receive bonuses that can be in the millions or tens of millions of dollars. Lloyd Blankfein, 54, Goldman’s chief executive officer, was awarded a $67.9 million bonus last year on top of his $600,000 salary.
At Merrill Lynch, CEO John Thain, 53, received a $15 million bonus when he was hired in December. Peter Kraus, 56, who is leaving after joining Merrill last month as strategy head, may be eligible to collect on a pay package originally valued at $95 million, including stock and options that replaced a Goldman stake he had to forfeit, people familiar with the matter have said.
While some of the most senior executives may choose to forgo their bonuses, like Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, 63, did last year, others whose compensation isn’t disclosed can still take home millions, said Mercer’s Orens.
At investment banks, “the largest compensation doesn’t necessarily get paid to the top five executives,” she said. “They could be zeros, but there still will be people making $28 million.”
“When you work on Wall Street and you get no bonus, that is a huge shock to the system,” said Bill Coleman, chief compensation officer at Salary.com, a software provider based in Waltham, Massachusetts. “Wall Street has created this mindset that most people find obscene, which is that it’s hard to live on just half a million dollars a year.”
`No Wall Street’
A Morgan Stanley investment banker in Europe, speaking on the condition that he wouldn’t be identified, said his bonus last year was five times his salary and that he would quit if he didn’t get a bonus this year, unless his salary was doubled.
“There is no Wall Street without bonuses,” said Andy Kessler, a former analyst and hedge-fund manager turned author. “The guys who know how to make money are the ones who are in demand. If you want to keep them, you have to pay them something.”
More than 148,000 financial jobs have been eliminated worldwide since the middle of 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Securities industry jobs in New York fell by 9,000, or 5 percent, through August 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said in an Oct. 23 report. The mean annual salary of securities-industry employees in 2007 was “slightly less than $400,000,” according to the Fed report.
Goldman Sachs plans to cut about 3,200 people, or 10 percent of its employees, a person familiar with the matter said last week. That’s a reversal from Sept. 16, when Chief Financial Officer David Viniar said he expected the number of employees to grow this year. Viniar told analysts in March that compensation costs make up two-thirds of the firm’s expenses and that year-end bonuses are roughly two-thirds of compensation.
More job reductions are likely, especially at Merrill and Lehman. About 10,000 Merrill employees may lose their jobs, estimates Richard Bove, an analyst at Ladenburg Thalmann & Co. Options Group, a financial services recruitment and consulting firm in New York, estimates that global banking job cuts could reach 200,000, with as many as 50,000 in New York.
“The vast majority of the guys who are being let go are not going to find another job in this environment on the Street,” said Fred Joseph, the former CEO of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. who’s now co-head of Morgan Joseph & Co. in New York. “Middle- market firms like us are growing, but all of us won’t hire enough people to dent the 10 percent of people that Goldman’s going to let go.”
Barclays Plc, which is acquiring Lehman’s North American investment banking and capital markets businesses, will cut about 3,000 jobs, Barclays President Robert Diamond said in an Oct. 10 Fortune magazine article. While London-based Barclays has a $2.5 billion pool of money to pay severance and other compensation, it hasn’t promised former Lehman employees any bonuses. Seth Martin, a spokesman at Barclays, declined to comment.
Competition for top employees, a standard explanation for paying large bonuses, is less fierce this year. Hedge funds, which have poached top traders from securities firms in the past, may cut as many as 10,000 jobs this year after their biggest losses in more than 20 years, estimates Options Group.
“People don’t have a whole lot of alternative places to go to, and it’s pretty clear to everybody that they’re lucky to have a job,” said Roy Smith, a former Goldman partner who’s now a finance professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “It has never been easy to find industries away from finance where you can make millions of dollars a year.”
Who Are Keepers?
Fewer employees means more bonus money will be available for those who remain, said Mercer’s Orens.
“You determine these are keepers, and you’ve got to keep them, so they’ll receive a disproportionate amount of the money that remains,” she said. “You want to make sure they’re not there and angry.”
Joseph, the former Drexel CEO, recalled the time at Shearson Hammill & Co. in 1973 when he had to deliver some good news and some bad news to a young employee.
“The good news is we’re firing half your class, but we love you and we want you to stay; the bad news is you’re not going to get a bonus, and we’re cutting salaries 10 percent,” he said. “He stayed and he built a whole career, and he’s been a successful investment banker ever since.”
The following table compares compensation and estimated bonuses for the first nine months of 2008 with the first nine months of last year. Bonus estimates are 60 percent of total compensation. Bonus awards are typically determined at the end of the year, with payments made in December or January.
Goldman Morgan Stanley Merrill
Nine Months 2007
Total Compensation $16.92 $13.37 $11.56
Estimated Bonus $10.15 $8.02 $6.94
Employees* 29,905 47,713 64,200
Bonus Per Employee $339,408 $168,067 $108,075
Nine Months 2008
Total Compensation $11.42 $10.73 $11.17
Estimated Bonus $6.85 $6.44 $6.70
Employees* 32,569 46,383 60,900
Bonus Per Employee $210,322 $138,749 $110,049
*Employee numbers are figures in third-quarter earnings reports
and don’t reflect any cuts or additions since then.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Christine Harper in New York at
Serena Saitto in New York at
Christine Harper and Serena Saitto, Bloomberg