- The public flogging Wall Street's elite are taking over their fat bonuses at Wednesday's Senate banking hearings may shame them into a show of remorse, but will it convince them to slash their pay?
Most pay experts say, No.
Compensation consultants agree that in many ways big banks have their hands tied when it comes to executive pay.
Big banks have to compete for talent with private-equity firms and hedge funds, which are allowed to treat a large chunk of their pay as capital gains because it's based on the performance of the fund, said Paul Dorf, managing director of Compensation Resources Inc. So, for example, a big portion of their salary is taxed at the 15 percent capital-gains rate, rather than the ordinary income-tax rate of 35 percent.
Before any change in compensation can be made there needs to be some mechanism that levels the playing field between financial-service companies and hedge funds, he said.
A more likely scenario might be that the biggest Wall Street firms follow the lead of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and adjust compensation packages for only its top executives. Last month, Goldman said it would pay 2009 bonuses for its 30-person management committee all in stock, rather than cash, and require them to hold the securities for five years before selling.
But Peter Cohan, head of management-consulting firm Peter S. Cohan & Associates, said other big banks may not feel the need to restructure their compensation packages in a similar fashion because Goldman was a special case. Goldman is in the center of the public's bulls-eye when it comes to public anger. For some reason the other firms have been able to dodge the bullet, he said.
Cohan believes it may have something to do with the Goldman is doing God's work, remark made by Goldman Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein. It was meant wryly, but didn't go over as well as he had hoped, he says. The public thought it was super-offensive.
Pearl Meyer, senior managing director at Stephen Hall & Partners in New York, also doubts there will be an industry shift toward paying bonuses from all-cash to paying bonuses from restricted stock for all of its employees due to the way its people are paid.
For example, the head of a large business unit might earn a $250,000 to $350,000 base salary, but the real payday comes from the annual bonus, which can be in the millions or tens of millions -- usually in cash.
By changing to restrictive all-stock bonuses, she said, you'll be cutting into people's current income, a portion of which they've been living on for the past year. There's also an underlying assumption that when the stock vests its price will reflect the company's long-term performance. Both are very difficult barriers in terms of employee retention and motivation, she said.
Then there's the dicey claw back provision. Last summer, Kenneth Feinberg, the Obama administration's pay czar, said that he had broad authority over executive pay at companies that received federal financial assistance, including the ability to force executives to pay back bonuses.
Susan O'Donnell, a managing director at compensation practice Pearl Meyer & Partners LLC in New York, said what while claw backs are emerging as a way to promote a focus on long-term performance, they can be difficult and costly to enforce.
Instead, she said, financial-services firms are talking more about so-called bonus banking, where part of the bonus is banked in a savings account and paid out incrementally over a number of years. The idea is to hold back some of the performance bonus, and pay it out after that performance is sustained, she said.