Here's what's really going on with Wall Street bonuses

February 18, 2016 | Efinancial Careers

Bonuses have disappointed most investment bankers this year, and Wall Street professionals are no exception. Despite pressure on big banks to keep their best associates and vice presidents happy with decent compensation, most have been left underwhelmed.

“Huge bonuses are, for the most part, a thing of the past on Wall Street,” says Jeanne Branthover, managing partner and the head of the global financial services practice at Boyden, an executive search firm. “This year, bonuses are expected to be flat or lower than last year.”

In fact, she and other headhunters estimated that the average bonus across the industry is down approximately 10% year-over-year.

“Even with the increase in mergers-and-acquisitions activity, most firms are trying to lower costs from underperforming areas and take it out in bonuses,” Branthover says. “Many will be very disappointed after working long, long hours and being in a profitable area or group.”

Superstars that firms desperately want to keep may see larger bonuses than their peers, but most likely nothing approaching the figure that they expected, she said.

This is a similar situation to London, where most bankers are disappointed with this year’s payouts, particularly in high-performing M&A divisions. However, M&A activity in the U.S. was very strong in 2015, so a reduction on 2014 is particularly galling.

Investment banks continue have costs eaten up by risk management, operational controls and compliance, and those factors taken together with the overall performance of the organization means that bonuses are underwhelming.

“I’m pretty much hearing flat-to-down – down at hedge funds, flat-to-down at investment banks, depending on overall performance of the bank,” Carol Hartman, managing partner of the financial services practice, North America, at DHR International “Some people seem to be very accepting, although outperformers seem to be very frustrated.”

This is gone down particularly badly at the junior level, where underpaying of analysts has led some to consider moves to the buy-side when would have otherwise stayed in banking. Private equity juniors have done comparatively well.

“There are 24- and 25-year-olds in private equity making $300k or $400k,” says Hartman.

Hartman estimates that a third-year analyst or a first-year associate at a private equity firm makes $150k in base salary plus a bonus in the 90%-110% range.

It’s no surprise that revenues in the fixed income currencies and commodities (FICC) businesses of the investment banks have been particularly badly hit after revenues slumped on an already poor 2014 at most big banks. However, even equities traders are disappointed, says Dylan Pany, a principal consultant and the head of fundamental trading at Selby Jennings. Compensation consultants Johnson Associates had predicted up to a 10% rise for equities professionals this year, but this hasn’t happened.

Street-wide headcount reductions occurred in those particular areas, and banks are moving capital to focus on equity for trading revenue,” Pany said. “If you are in sales and trading in the equity space your bonuses will be better than those in the FICC business, but nothing stellar.”

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