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Archive for Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wall Street pay as high or higher than ‘07 despite meltdown

October 25, 2008

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— Despite the Wall Street meltdown, America's biggest banks are preparing to pay their workers as much as last year or more, including bonuses tied to personal and company performance.

So far this year, nine of the largest U.S. banks, including some that have cut thousands of jobs, have seen total costs for salaries, benefits and bonuses grow by an average of 3 percent from a year ago, according to an Associated Press review.

"Taxpayers have lost their life savings, and now they are being asked to bail out corporations," New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said of the AP findings. "It's adding insult to injury to continue to pay outsized bonuses and exorbitant compensation."

Banks will decide what to pay out in bonuses in the coming months. Just because they've been accruing money for incentive pay doesn't mean they will pay it out in full.

That there is a rise in pay, or at least not a pronounced dropoff, from 2007 is surprising because many of the same companies were doing some of their best business ever, at least in the first half of last year. In 2008, each quarter has been weaker than the last.

"There are, of course, expectations that the payouts should be going down," David Schmidt, a senior compensation consultant at James F. Reda & Associates. "But we haven't seen that show up yet."

Some banks are setting aside large amounts. At Citigroup, which has cut 23,000 jobs this year amid the crisis, pay expenses for the first nine months of this year came to $25.9 billion, 4 percent more than the same period last year.

Even if you subtract what the bank has shelled out in severance pay and other costs related to the job cuts, overall pay is only slightly lower this year.

Typically, about 60 percent of Wall Street pay goes to salary and benefits, while about 40 percent goes to end-of-the-year cash and stock bonuses that hinge on performance, both for the individual and the company, said Brad Hintz, a securities industry analyst at Sanford Bernstein and a former chief financial officer at Lehman Brothers.

"The fundamental goal of the compensation plan is to allow an employee to get wealthy," Hintz said. He also pointed out that the workers' pay is supposed to be "exposed to the risk of the parent company."

This should be the year where that structure is tested. The financial crisis, brought about by mountains of bad mortgage-related assets, caused banks to falter or fail and lending to dry up and prompted Congress to pass a $700 billion bailout package. As part of that, government is pouring $125 billion through stock purchases into the nine large financial companies cited in AP's review of compensation.

Besides Citigroup, those include Bank of New York Mellon, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo & Co., and State Street. Another $125 billion will be made available to other banks.

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