Swiss bank annual earnings are here so we might as well check in on what they’re up to with comp. You and I may think of comp in pretty straightforward ways – if you did good, and your employer did good, you get paid well, and if not not – but Credit Suisse and UBS take a delightfully arcane wheels-within-wheels approach, constantly changing how they pay employees to send signals, fine-tune incentives, and optimize regulatory capital. I suppose if I worked there I’d be so pleased by the complexity of the edifice that I’d be okay with otherwise disappointing pay. Current employees may disagree.
Anyway we talked about UBS the other day; per the FT they are handing out bonuses in the form of high-trigger CoCo bonds that get written down to zero if UBS’s regulatory capital falls below 7 percent. The bonds “will pay a market-based interest rate” though that’s not saying much; any interest rate is “market-based” in the sense that it can be decomposed into, like, Treasuries plus a number. Presumably the number here is high.
If you read a lot of media coverage of Goldman Sachs earnings you get the sense that the most important number the firm reports is average compensation per employee, which this year was a nice oh-so-close-to-round $399,506. I CONCUR, of course.1 Also of interest is the comp ratio, which was only 39% this year, as less of the spoils of Goldman’s labors go to the people in the building doing the labors, and more go to the people providing the capital. Progress!
The analysts on the earnings call were not all that focused on comp, which I attribute to jealousy, but there were some exceptions. Like JPMorgan’s Kian Abouhossein, who pressed the Viniar/Schwartz CFO tag-team about expenses and headcount in Investing & Lending, playing an enjoyable guessing game with the twin CFOs about staffing levels in Investing & Lending:2
I mean, there are only few hundred — I assume there are only a few hundred people running in this division. I can’t believe there’s thousands of — I would be even surprised if it’s 1,000 people. So I’m just wondering why you’re having $2 billion to $3 billion of expenses. Is it interest expenses or is it something else? I just don’t understand why there’s such a big expense level.
Because the few hundred people are paid really well? Other? Dunno. You can guess why Schwiniar might have stalled here (and on a later question about I&L Basel III RWAs); the Investing & Lending business model has gotten some negative attention recently. The problem is basically that it does things like investing and lending, which almost violate the Volcker Rule, or would if it existed, which it doesn’t, yet.
Jamie Dimon, the CEO of the country’s largest bank by assets, says that regulating Wall Street pay could put us on the road to communism. “We all want an equitable society. We need to have a conversation about what makes it equitable,” the JPMorgan Chase CEO said at The New York Times DealBook conference on Wednesday. “You can go do it the way that Cuba tried. Okay, well, then it will be equitable, but everyone won’t have much.” “If you don’t want a free society, then start dictating what compensation can be,” he added. [HuffPo via Counterparties]
Bonus Watch ’12: Whole Bunch Of Financial Services Employees Will Get Nothing, May Or May Not Like ItBy Bess Levin
Santa will leave many bankers and traders empty-handed this holiday season. One in five Wall Streeters won’t get a bonus for 2012, according to a closely watched compensation study set to be released next week. That figure is up sharply from last year, when roughly 13% of bonus-eligible employees got no added year-end pay, according to Options Group, a New York executive search and consulting firm that produced the study. In terms of overall compensation, some staff in stocks and derivatives trading are likely to be the hardest hit, as their compensation is set to shrink by at least 20% for the third year in a row, the study found. A stock trader who is a managing director at a securities firm stands to take home as little as $550,000, down 31% from 2011. Sluggish deal activity means investment bankers also could receive a 13% pay cut, the study found. [WSJ]
Banks should pay bonuses in debt, which would be wiped out if a bank failed, an EU banking report will suggest as Europe attempts to step up the fight against bankers’ pay.
I’ve been sort of fond of this for a while. It’s a way for bankers to eat their own cooking: if you’re a banker, what you produce, more or less, is debt, so you might as well stand behind the basic soundness of that debt by owning lots of it. You can fine-tune this theory – for instance, Credit Suisse circa 2008 produced asset-backed securities, and Credit Suisse circa 2011 produced derivatives-counterparty credit risk, so that’s what its bankers got – but the basics are sound. In particular, if you are a banker, one thing that you don’t produce – that is sort of an unwanted byproduct of your operations, imposed by regulators but not particularly liked by you – is equity, so getting paid in equity is a little perverse.1
There’s a little theoretical tension here, though, which is that there’s also good reason to think that bankers should be the lowest on the totem pole in terms of getting their money back if they blow up their banks. You could just about imagine a bank capitalized with 10% equity, 10% banker-pay junior debt, and 80% senior debt, say, failing and recovering 85 cents on the dollar. So the real debt gets paid off 100%, but where does the 5 cents go? Classically the “debt” that the bankers get is senior to the “equity” that public shareholders get, but it seems a bit rough to pay the nasty bankers before you pay the widow-and-orphan shareholders. Read more »