NEW YORK – Better to be a broker than a baron on Wall Street if you're expecting a big bonus this year.
The decision by top Goldman Sachs executives to forgo bonuses in 2008 is forcing other investment bank bosses to consider following suit. But thousands of lower-tier brokers will still collect hefty bonuses as firms try to keep their top talent from bolting for boutique firms or other industries.
Wall Street employees often receive up to 80 percent of their total compensation from year-end bonuses. Now those payments are attracting more scrutiny from lawmakers and consumer groups because taxpayers are footing the bill for the government's $700 billion financial bailout.
"Nobody is going to be stupid enough to pay their CEO an outlandish amount of money in this climate," said Alan Johnson, managing director of New York-based compensation consulting firm Johnson Associates.
He estimates Wall Street CEOs will see their bonuses reduced by up to 70 percent this year.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc. announced Sunday that seven executives, including Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, would get no cash or stock bonuses for 2008.
Blankfein received total compensation of $54 million last year, according to calculations by The Associated Press, making him the sixth-highest-paid CEO of a Standard & Poor's 500 company in 2007.
It's the first time top Goldman executives have not received bonuses since the 139-year-old investment bank went public in 1999. The executives decided to forgo the payments this time "because they believe it's the right thing to do," Goldman spokesman Michael DuVally said.
The move wasn't entirely unexpected. Goldman's earnings have been hammered during the economic crisis, cutting into its compensation pool. Last month, it received a $10 billion capital injection from the government. That money is part of $125 billion being given to nine major banks in exchange for federal ownership stakes.
The huge payouts have raised questions among officials on Capitol Hill and in New York state about whether any bailout money will be used to pay employees. Banks say that won't happen — even though the terms of the bailout do not expressly prohibit it.
Other banks are feeling pressure to follow Goldman's lead. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Monday urged Citigroup Inc. executives to forgo their bonuses this year — hours after the company announced it would lay off 50,000 workers.
"It would send exactly the wrong message for Citigroup's top brass to collect bonuses while investors, taxpayers, and now Citigroup's own employees suffer," said Cuomo, who is probing the use of bailout money by New York-based firms.
Citigroup officials did not immediately comment. But speaking to the AP earlier in the day, Citigroup Chairman Win Bischoff did not rule out the idea that Citigroup's leaders would forgo bonuses this year.
"Watch this space," Bischoff said at a conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Bank of America said last week that its bonus-compensation pool for senior managers is expected to be reduced by more than 50 percent, though final decisions on pay have not been made.
Though it's unusual for Wall Street executives to turn down bonuses, it has happened before. Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack took no bonus last year. A company spokesman said no decision has been made for this year.
Even if top executives give up bonuses, that won't mean the end of eye-popping Wall Street paydays this year or next. Though some top executives may "humble themselves" and take little or no bonus, Johnson said "thousands of other people will get paid millions."
"There won't be a lot eight-figure bonuses, but there's going to be lots of sevens," Johnson said.
A major reason is that firms that don't pay bonuses risk losing high-performing workers. These workers count on their bonuses to pay mortgage bills and other expenses.
Despite the credit crisis, "you're going to find pockets of these companies that are doing very well, and those people are going to get a bonus," said David Schmidt, a senior consultant on executive pay at James F. Reda & Associates in New York. "If they don't get paid, they're going to be angry, and they're going to leave" for smaller, more specialized firms or other professions entirely.
Fear of losing top employees goes beyond Wall Street. Troubled insurer American International Group Inc., which is receiving around $150 billion in bailout money, said Friday it will pay about $500 million in deferred compensation to employees and independent agents.
The money represents earned income, not bonuses, and is intended to encourage employees whose savings were wiped out from abandoning the firm, AIG spokesman Joe Norton said.
Still, Norton acknowledged, there's "nothing" to stop employees from taking the money and then quitting.
"It's a risk we're willing to take. It's their money," he said.
Companies usually make decisions about bonuses in December and make payments in January. Workers who do get bonuses will almost certainly receive much less than they did last year.
No decision has been made on the size of bonuses to be paid to Goldman employees, DuVally said. That will depend on the company's year-end performance and on how much money is allocated to the employee-compensation pool, he said.
Whatever companies pay to midlevel employees, much of it will be distributed under the radar. Unlike bonuses for top executives, those paid to midlevel employees don't have to be disclosed in public filings.
"It's only the people at the very top who have to say what they're getting" in bonuses, said Mark Borges, a principal with Compensia Inc., a Northern California compensation consulting firm. "The real largesse of these arrangements has really gone unnoticed."