Bonus bonanza

Wall Street denizens eye new homes, cars after receiving year-end windfall

Martin Berkman, second from left, a former executive of IBM, now retired, of Potomac, Md., with his family, right, speak with a sales representative at a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Manhattan. The year-end bonus is a Wall Street tradition, and for a second consecutive year, the amounts are impressive. Buying a new car is a popular way to spend some of that money.

Published: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 2, 2005 at 12:02 a.m.
NEW YORK - Samantha Kleier Forbes, a 30-year-old real estate broker, was getting ready to leave for a vacation to Florida with her mother and sister when she received an urgent call. It was a client who had spent the summer scouring the Upper East Side of Manhattan for an apartment priced between $4 million and $5 million.
The client insisted on seeing more apartments that day, but now she wanted to look in the $6 million range. Her husband, a banker at Goldman Sachs in his late 30s, had just received his year-end bonus.
''Normally this time of year is dead,'' said Forbes, a vice president at Gumley Haft Kleier, a residential real estate brokerage. But this winter there is unusual buying interest that she attributes to rich Wall Street bonuses. She is cutting her end-of-the-year vacation short, so she can prepare for an onslaught of clients anxious to see apartments.
The year-end bonus is a Wall Street tradition, and for a second consecutive year, the amounts are impressive. Three major Wall Street firms - Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns - have reported record profits for the year and all are said to have given out handsome bonuses. Investment bankers are expected to see gains in bonuses of 10 percent to 15 percent, amid a year-end flurry of mergers. Fixed-income traders, who have been the best compensated Wall Street professionals in recent years, will also be amply rewarded, but their percentage gains may be smaller than those of bankers.
Bonuses, of course, vary by bank, by division and by individual. They reflect the firm's profitability and the group's performance, as well as the individual's contribution.
This year's bonuses do not quite reach the heights touched by star bankers and traders in the heyday of the late 1990s technology bubble. But they are rich enough to persuade many of Wall Street's elite to rediscover conspicuous consumption.
One senior trader is building a sports complex for triathlon training at his house in upstate New York. It will include a swim-in-place lap pool, a climbing wall and a fitness center. Another bought an Aston Martin.
For some, upgrading real estate is the first order of business.
But many Wall Street professionals are urging caution, given that the bonus typically constitutes the majority of their compensation. More than a dozen bankers, all of whom would talk about their spending only on the condition of anonymity, said they were all too aware that the good times could end as quickly as they did after 2000, when a $2.5 million income could turn into $800,000 overnight.
''Given the last two to three years when people figured out that this business is pretty volatile, they are going to try and bank a lot of their bonuses,'' said one managing director at a firm where bonuses have been announced. ''They've seen too many people laid off and they realize they can't just spend all their money.''
It should be noted that this same banker just bought a $150,000 Aston Martin to park in his garage in Greenwich, Conn.
Another senior banker at a different firm, who is set to receive a $2.8 million bonus, said he had bought his wife a mink coat and was planning a weeklong skiing vacation out West. But he also said he intended to save most of the money. ''We're not buying homes or boats, we're not spending on the big things,'' he said. "We are more relaxed and generous on the small things.''
Of course, small is in the eye of the beholder. While the Maybach, a luxury car brand owned by DaimlerChrysler that starts at $308,000, appears on the wish lists of many bankers, relatively less expensive models from Aston Martin, Bentley and Maserati have also been popular. Michael Parchment, general manager for Miller Motorcars, a luxury dealership in Greenwich, said demand had been soaring.
"It's probably up 20 to 30 percent from the same time period last year," he said. "Unfortunately, production isn't up." The result, he said, are some unhappy bankers.
Wall Street bonuses are expected to total $15.9 billion in 2004 - second only to $19.5 billion in 2000 - according to Alan G. Hevesi, the state comptroller of New York. In 2003, bonuses totaled $15.8 billion.
Bonus season is always a particularly angst-ridden time for Wall Street. Managers haggle for more money for their employees, divisions fight for a bigger piece of the pie and bankers try to portray themselves as indispensable. In the end, few admit to being happy, at least to their bosses.
''We used to say there's no amount of compensation that amounts to people saying thank you,'' said Roy C. Smith, a former Goldman Sachs partner who is now a professor of finance at New York University.
''They are either sullen or mutinous, but never quite happy.''
Midlevel employees did especially well this year. Three senior-level managers at Wall Street firms said that the people who were enjoying the biggest percentage increases overall were second- and third-level associates and junior-level vice presidents.
The ranks of those managers had been thinned after the stock market bubble burst. But this year, a reinvigorated market meant there were too few associates and managing directors to put together client pitches. At least three banks had to guarantee bonus increases of 25 percent to 50 percent to prevent defections to other firms. The result is that a third-year associate who might have made $200,000 in income last year could receive $350,000 this year.
The manager with the Aston Martin said that last year's compensation packages for associates were ridiculously low. ''You had third-year associates making $210,000 to $225,000; a lot of these guys are married and have young kids and they are working" very hard, he said.
Those at the top will do much, much better. Last year, Lloyd S. Blankfein, the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs made $20.1 million; of that only $600,000 was salary. E. Stanley O'Neal, the chief executive of Merrill Lynch, received a bonus of $13.5 million and restricted stock worth $11.2 million on top of his $500,000 salary last year.
At the other end of the compensation spectrum, an investment banking analyst right out of college would have made a $65,000 salary and a $35,000 bonus. An associate just out of business school, might have made $85,000 in salary and a $115,000 bonus.
Even the cautious are probably going to treat at least part of their bonus as play money.
One senior investment banker at a big Wall Street firm said he was putting this year's money "directly into the bank."
"I have a sailboat, a motor boat, an apartment, an SUV,'' he said. ''What could I possibly need?'' After brief reflection, however, he continued: "Maybe a little Porsche for the Hamptons house, but probably not."

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