Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Investment Banking Bonuses To Be Slashed

Bloomberg: U.S. taxpayers, who feel they own a stake in Wall Street after funding a $700 billion bailout for the industry, don't want executives' bonuses reduced. They want them eliminated. President-elect Obama cited the program at his first news conference on Nov. 7, saying it will be reviewed to make sure it's ``not unduly rewarding the management of financial firms receiving government assistance.''

While year-end rewards are likely to decline with a drop in revenue this year, industry veterans say that eliminating them risks driving away the firms' most productive workers.``There are instances where bonuses are justified, deserved, and in the best interests of the investment bank involved,'' said Dan Lufkin, a co-founder of Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette Inc., the investment bank acquired by Credit Suisse Group AG in 2000. ``Your very best people are people you want to hold, and your very best people will have opportunities even in this environment to transfer allegiance.''

The companies, which set aside revenue throughout the year to pay bonuses, haven't commented on plans for year-end awards, typically decided this month or next. A study released last week said the firms are likely to cut bonuses for top executives by as much as 70 percent. Cuomo is expected to go through the bonus proposals from these investment banks, and is likely to cut the bonuses a lot further to appease the public's fury. I think Cuomo could further halve the actual bonuses.

``Even really sober people are saying this is the worst financial crisis since the Depression, and they're saying bonuses are just going to be reduced?'' said a 53-year-old retired merchant marine in Seattle. ``Oh my God, you read that and your jaw drops.''

Wall Street firms' pay has traditionally been tied closely to performance of the companies, which is why employees receive most of their compensation at the end of the year after final results are known. Depending on seniority and performance, bonuses for traders, bankers and executives can be a multiple of their salaries, which range from about $80,000 to $600,000.

The nine banks that was pressed to detail their bonus plans asked for more time to respond. They've been granted an additional two weeks. The original deadline was yesterday.

Goldman, the largest and most profitable U.S. securities firm in the world last year, paid Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein a record $67.9 million bonus for 2007 on top of his $600,000 salary. That was justified, he told shareholders at the company's annual meeting in April, because of Goldman's superior financial results. ``We're very much a performance-related firm,'' he said. ``If those results don't come in, I assure you at Goldman Sachs you won't see that compensation.''

Goldman's profit is down 47 percent so far this year and five analysts expect the company to report its first loss as a public company in the fourth quarter that ends this month. The stock price has dropped 67 percent this year and Goldman received $10 billion from the U.S. government in the bailout last month.

``The executives in companies that get bailout money should have their base salaries reduced by 10 percent for 2009 and they should pay back a substantial portion of their 2007 bonuses to the government for the financial devastation they oversaw, fostered and, in some cases, directly caused,'' said a 57-year-old lawyer in Baltimore. ``Their sense of entitlement is appalling.''

In addition to Goldman, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup, the companies that received the first round of money from the U.S. government's Troubled Asset Relief Program were Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp, Wells Fargo & Co., State Street Corp and Bank of New York Mellon Corp.

Some needed the money more than others. Citigroup and Merrill haven't been profitable since early last year. Earnings at each of the other firms, except Boston-based State Street, have been dropping.

``Bonuses and severance packages will obsess the American public'' and become ``a humiliation and embarrassment,'' said Arthur Levitt, a senior adviser to the Carlyle Group, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a board member of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News. ``Compensation committees, believe me, are paying close attention to this.''

Several of the companies -- including Citigroup and Wells Fargo -- have said they won't use federal funds to pay bonuses. That's disputed by some. ``The argument of saying we're not using the bailout money is just crap because money's fungible, money's money,'' said Crystal, who writes the newsletter graefcrystal.com. ``It exposes them to ridicule.''

The bailout is only part of the reason that people object to Wall Street bonuses this year. The financial industry worldwide has taken more than $690 billion in writedowns and credit losses this year and cut more than 150,000 jobs. A decline in lending has caused the wider economy to contract: the U.S. gross domestic product shrank at a 0.3 percent annual pace in the third quarter, consumer spending fell at its fastest pace since 1980 and unemployment jumped to 6.5 percent, the highest since 1994.

Attention is most focused on the top executives at the banks that are receiving federal money. They'll have to take the steepest pay cuts because their pay is disclosed in proxy filings, according to Alan Johnson, managing director of Johnson Associates, the compensation consulting firm that estimates bonuses will decline between 10 percent and 70 percent. ``I'd advise the CEO to say he can't take anything if it's one of these firms getting bailed out by the government,'' said Crystal. ``I think he's just going to have to go down to just his salary.''

That's probably not the case for employees whose pay isn't disclosed, even those who get bonuses that exceed $1 million. Top performers should receive bonuses this year or companies risk losing their best workers. Of about 600 people who responded to an online survey on the eFinancialCareers.com Web site, 46 percent said they would be unwilling to take any pay cut this year.

p/s photos: Fiona Xie

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