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Bankers count their blessings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 1:54am

Yes – it’s that time of the year again. No – not Christmas trees, carols, frenzied shopping sprees, boozy corporate parties and stuffed  turkey dinners.
For most investment bankers, the season of goodwill takes an altogether  literal meaning.

Goodwill –  or intangible, excess value – neatly sums up what  happens behind the scenes in the last quarter of the calendar year.

The long-awaited bonus – and promotion –  period is just around the corner,  as the globe’s financial luminaries get assessed for how much they have (or  are perceived to have) produced  in the year. 

The process is not entirely fair and disproportionally rewards  senior ranks. How discretionary payments are determined is often  clear as mud, even though formal procedures are  established to  lend a veneer of even-handedness.

In practice, it’s a top-down approach with a bonus pool  determined by the powers that be, and that, in turn, is allocated across global and regional departments. This often involves self-assessment by each recipient across a variety of criteria dreamed up by HR consultants. As one can imagine, this is as far removed from a Mao-style  auto-critique as possible – it’s about communicating how great, indispensable and visible you are.

Importantly, it normally also involves a 360-degree review by direct reports, peers and managers, although the assessors will often be identified for this purpose by the recipient, which somewhat negates its effectiveness and can become a mutual back-scratching effort.

The managing directors – and those  reporting to them – will then meet and discuss each name,  often ranking people within a similar year or class of seniority to identify the outperformers and promote those with the best potential. The list can be long, so it’s largely down to how well one is seen to have done as an individual  and among one’s peers – all within a matter of a few minutes.

The result  determines a financial reward that can often represent several times one’s base salary. At least, it used to be. Salaries have  increased sharply – often doubled –  in recent years, while bonuses as a proportion of basic pay have  been  greatly reduced. More often than not, the discretionary element will also be deferred over several years, paid for a large part in shares or stock options, and maybe even subject to claw-back if the bank fails to perform in ensuing years. In extreme cases, as the EU is about to rule, caps may even be imposed.

A number of unlucky recipients will be “zeroed”, a clear message that they should be better off seeking their fortunes elsewhere, and indeed a tacit encouragement to do so.

This will be particularly pronounced in Britain this year, as bonuses for 2012 are likely to be more than 86 per cent lower than a boom year like 2007, according to the  Centre for Economics and Business Research. The number of those employed in the financial sector in Britain will fall for the first time behind those in New York and Hong Kong by 2015.

Of course, the dwindling number of high fliers enjoying guarantees, often as a result of switching from one firm to another mid-way through the year, needn’t worry, as their discretionary payments will have been contractually agreed in advance.  And while multi-year guarantees may, for the most part, now be a thing of the past, a small pool of powerful rainmakers continue to enjoy dizzyingly high levels of compensation, as if the collapse of Bear Stearns  and Lehman Brothers and the resultant financial crisis had never happened.

Philippe Espinasse, a former investment banker, is the author of IPO: A Global Guide (HKU Press)

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