Suffering Economy Threatens Wall Street's Big Payouts

With the economy in the throes of a historic meltdown, financial workers everywhere fear layoffs. But even those who keep their jobs may face a far different future than they had imagined — one without the big payouts that have long made Wall Street a beacon for the ambitious and the acquisitive.

Those finance industry workers still standing after the brutal banking collapses of the past year had to contend with a major slash in bonus pay — with many losing as much as one-third of their total compensation. Then the Obama administration imposed a pay cap of $500,000 on certain senior executives whose companies received substantial bailout money.

Now, analysts anticipate pay will sink even further, and some question whether the shift could permanently downsize the high-flying culture of Wall Street.

"It's going to drop again in 2009, so it's a huge change," compensation consultant Alan Johnson said of the falling bonus payouts.

Johnson noted that pay has often dropped as part of a cyclical downturn and then rebounded after a few years. But he said the new federal pay caps have changed the equation and have many Wall Street workers concerned that their incentive pay could disappear altogether, cutting their compensation to one-third of what it was.

In the neighborhood surrounding the New York Stock Exchange, many finance industry employees say they are more worried about keeping their jobs than they are about their paychecks dwindling. Some believe the loss in compensation goes with the territory.

"You eat what you kill. It's a performance-based industry," said broker Drew R. Alexander, who has seen his pay drop since October and reports that some friends have lost upwards of 60 percent of their income.

Even many of those performing well are being forced to cut back on some expenses. Most finance sector employees have come to depend on bonuses and incentives to cover about two-thirds of their total income — but in 2008 that bonus pay was sliced by about 45 percent, cutting total compensation by about one-third, Johnson said.

That means, according to Johnson, that workers who recently got their MBAs and once would have expected more than $150,000 in yearly pay likely got about $105,000. Vice presidents, who in flush years have made $300,000 to $500,000, saw a drop of $90,000 to $150,000. Even secretaries, who including a small bonus often make about $50,000 a year, have seen a drop.

At the big investment firms, where historically hundreds of employees have made millions, and thousands have made $300,000 to $500,000, workers are struggling to come to grips with a world gone suddenly awry.

"Morale is terrible right now," Johnson said. "People are getting laid off. Pay is down. You're working really hard."

A number of firms have seen a jump in the employee hours spent at the company gym, as people try to cope with declining opportunity and rising stress, he said.

Analysts believe the federal pay caps imposed on some of the highest-level executives, combined with public anger surrounding Wall Street bonuses, may very well trickle down to reduce the pay of employees at all levels of finance firms.

"It will have a deflationary impact on the organizations," said Pearl Meyer, executive compensation consultant with Steven Hall & Partners. "But I don't know how permanent that is."

"At the lower level, you're hitting Christmas money" with such cuts, along with home and car payments, Meyer said. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently noted that more than half the city's financial services sector employees make less than $100,000 a year.

And at the upper range of the ladder, long-term pay cuts could permanently shift the character of Wall Street — long famous for drawing daredevil risk-takers seeking a luxe lifestyle.

Growing up in suburban Summit, N.J., David Gunther was surrounded by investment bankers and luxury sedans. After visiting a cousin on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, he was hooked.

"Being down there, everyone's yelling. They have their own language, their own talk, their own swagger," said Gunther, 23. "It always seemed like fast easy money" and was "portrayed as one big party."

Gunther thought he might land a job making $80,000 out of college. Instead, he's living with his parents and looking for his first job — hoping now for $30,000 a year, and considering other industries.

"The game's completely changed," he said.