A revival of fortunes
Published: October 16 2009
21:25 | Last updated: October 16 2009 21:25
The mood in the
Maserati dealership on the Old Brompton Road on Thursday was upbeat. That
Goldman Sachs revealed its global staff was on track to earn about
$700,000 apiece this year – and in this affluent corner of west London, a
favourite spot for City types, the expectation is that some of that will
find its way into the showroom. The dealership has already had a record
September; it hopes the new year bonus round will herald a return to the
time when the luxury Italian sports cars were selling at the rate of one a
Goldman – which announced
earnings of $3.2bn, a near quarterly record – will not be the only US
bank supplying custom to those serving the upper echelons of the market. A
JPMorgan Chase reported $3.6bn of earnings, close to the boom-time
numbers achieved in 2007. UK banks such as
HSBC are also thriving. All are likely to pay big bonuses, arguing
that if they do not, their best people will defect to the competition.
It was not supposed to be like this. In the
wake of the financial crisis, there was vociferous criticism of the
banks’ bonus culture and widespread hope it would change, ending a
system critics said promoted excessive – and highly dangerous – risk-taking.
When the leaders of the Group of 20 richest
nations gathered in Pittsburgh last month, they sidestepped the moralists’
argument – that bankers are simply paid too much – and declined to impose
pay caps demanded by European representatives led by President Nicolas
Sarkozy of France. But they did come up with
guidelines to create pay schemes to discourage risky short-termism and
ensure a large part of bankers’ compensation is deferred over several years.
However, the scale of the profits racked up
this week by Wall Street’s finest has raised fears that such reform
initiatives will miss the mark. “It’s going to be just like before, apart
from a few cosmetic changes,” says one former Lehman Brothers banker. “All
the banks have no intention of changing what they do on pay.”
Meanwhile, the focus among policymakers on
the structure of bonuses – rather than the amount paid out – has done little
to assuage public outrage. “Goldman Sachs’ profits of £20m a day will stick
in the throat of every factory or shop-floor worker facing the sack because
of the credit crisis,” railed Friday’s Sun, the UK’s biggest selling
Goldman is the main butt of outrage because
it has bounced back to generate vast profits just months after receiving
government support, but other institutions – spanning
Citigroup – remain in the line of fire.
“Americans don’t resent people who make a lot
of money – we all want to make money,” Edolphus Towns, a Democrat who chairs
the House of Representatives oversight committee, said in Congress. “But
what infuriates people is when bosses at bailed out companies, virtual wards
of the state, continue to rake in millions – in effect, our millions.”
“say on pay” bill is likely to pass through Congress. This would give
investors the option of a non-binding vote against directors’ pay – a device
copied from a successful rule in the UK.
More dramatic still was the appointment of
Kenneth Feinberg, the “special master” on pay, who now sits in the US
Treasury with the power to reject pay plans for companies that are the
recipients of government bail-out money. He has already ordered AIG, the
to cut its planned pay-outs to some executives and told Citigroup that
he had problems with a planned $100m bonus payment to
Andrew Hall, the bank’s star trader at Phibro, its commodities trading
division. Such was the stumbling block that
Citi sold the unit.
Outside Congress, activist shareholders have
also raised their voices. This week, the Interfaith Center on Corporate
Responsibility, a coalition of nearly 300 faith-based institutional
investors with more than $100bn in capital, filed a resolution urging
Goldman’s board to keep a lid on pay.
Despite rumours of senior Goldman executives
being prepared to show restraint on their own pay, and suggestions that the
bank could seek to offset criticism by funding a new $1bn charitable
foundation, its rhetoric has remained unapologetic.
“We’re aware of what’s going on in the
world,” says David Viniar, chief financial officer. “But we have to trade
that off with treating our people fairly”.
What few investment bankers will say publicly
is that there is a growing rancour at the fact that their industry appears
to have been singled out for compensation reform while their high-earning
peers in the hedge fund and private equity sectors have largely escaped
In the UK, in particular, the debate over
remuneration has become something of a political football, with Gordon
Brown, prime minister, and his embattled centre-left government accused of
exploiting antipathy to bankers to distract voter attention from another
flare-up in the long-running scandal over MPs’ expenses.
Alistair Darling, chancellor of the
exchequer, and Lord Myners, the City minister – and the man who approved the
£16m pension pot given to Sir Fred Goodwin,
Royal Bank of Scotland’s disgraced former chief executive – have led
the charge in demanding that banks adopt the pay guidelines agreed by the
Last month, Britain’s five biggest banks were
trumpeted by the Treasury as the first signatories to the new regime. Eleven
international banks, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley,
followed suit this week at a
tense meeting with Lord Myners that several participants dismissed as a
In the US, the administration of Barack Obama
has also found banks to be an easy populist target amid the backlash over
healthcare reforms and the growing death toll in Afghanistan.
Sifting fact from spin, there is a growing
consensus among both bankers and independent analysts on both sides of the
Atlantic that the G20 guidelines will make little difference to banker
The only significant innovation to emerge
from the G20 relates to “claw-backs” that allow banks to reclaim
compensation awarded in earlier years if trading activity later backfires.
These existed at some banks, such as
Credit Suisse, before the crisis, but now all of the leading banks
are expected to have some sort of system in place by the time 2009 bonuses
are awarded early next year. A number, including Morgan Stanley, UBS and
Citi, have already introduced claw-backs.
The other big reform advanced at Pittsburgh –
the call for between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of senior bankers’ bonuses
to be deferred over at least three years – is nothing new. Goldman, in fact,
has among the most restrictive compensation principles on Wall Street,
awarding much-vilified “guaranteed” bonuses only in exceptional
circumstances and outlawing multi-year guarantees.
Credit Suisse recently went further. It
linked a large chunk of bonuses to the performance of a pool of
hard-to-value toxic assets, restricting pay-outs for seven years.
But even the modest guidelines agreed by the
G20 could prove difficult to implement. In the week after the summit it
emerged that the US Federal Reserve was interpreting the bracket of 40 per
cent to 60 per cent as “an example” – not a prescription – of how
compensation could be structured. As one Wall Street executive noted, with
thinly veiled relief: “The US appeared to have found a loophole in the G20
rules” – much to the chagrin of European rivals who are under stiff pressure
from national regulators to observe the spirit, as well as the letter, of
the G20 rules.
Ironically, Wall Street’s two defunct
investment banks, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, were both big believers
in deferred bonuses. “They were the two firms that had the most aggressive
share-based compensation, with up to 65 per cent of pay vesting over five
years,” says one senior banker at Barclays, which now owns Lehman’s US
operations. “That doesn’t say much about the correlation of bonus schemes
and the success or failure of a business.”
Such observations are the definitive proof,
in the eyes of critics, that politicians’ focus on bonuses is both misplaced
“The easiest way to destroy this company is
for us not to pay our people. Why would anyone think that destroying a
company that pays billion of dollars in taxes every year is a good idea?”
asks one Goldman spokesman.
Such thinking suggests that policymakers may
have lost their chance effectively to change the way bankers are paid. The
G20 was seen by many as a unique opportunity to turn consensus into action.
If that fails, few believe that alternative proposals, such as national
legislation, could be put into practice in such a globalised business.
The final hope may be reform from within.
Speaking on the same day as Goldman announced its quarterly profit numbers,
Ken Costa, chairman of Lazard International investment bank, delivered a
message of hope. He told a packed congregation at St Katharine Cree church
in the City of London: “I have observed in over 30 years in the City the
driving desire of many to work hard, to be rewarded well, and get out as
quickly as possible. That impatience is no recipe for a healthy economy or
Reporting by Patrick Jenkins and Megan Murphy in London, Francesco Guerrera
in New York and Tom Braithwaite in Washington