Collapse in profits sparks debate on pay

eFC logo

Inside the banks the story has changed, too, and not just because almost everyone will have lower bonuses than last year. The collapse in the profitability of financial services firms has sparked vigorous debate about exactly what methods they should use to pay their staff.

Jon Terry, a director of the global human resource solutions group at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says that many banks in London have taken a decision to widen the gap between the pay of their most valued employees and that of their least valued.

'A large number of people accustomed to receiving a bonus will receive none at all this year,' he says. This is partly because the banks would have trouble finding the money, but also because they want to be rid of some employees and think that not paying a bonus will inspire them to seek their futures elsewhere.

Terry also predicts another round of redundancies before bonuses are paid out, so that those remaining can receive a larger percentage of a small bonus pool.

The picture looks very different in Paris. Diane Segalen, a partner with the headhunter Heidrick & Struggles, says that banks in France are tending to slash the bonuses of high-flyers, to bolster those of the lower paid.

She attributes this to cultural differences concerning employment, which have also led to proportionally fewer investment banking redundancies in Paris this year than London.

In the UK, there has been plenty of jockeying for position inside the divisions of the banks. Gavin Bonnet, managing director of the headhunter Alexander Mann Global Markets, says many staff with a fixed-income role, for example, would prefer to be regarded as part of a profitable debt capital markets team than as part of an investment banking team that has had a dreadful year. They would then benefit from a larger pay-out from the team part of their bonus.

Tony Tucker, managing director of the headhunting firm Executive Resourcing Group, says that despite the scope for in-fighting, many staff will have no choice but to curb their resentment if they feel their bonuses fall short.

'People are more worried about keeping their job than the size of their bonus,' says Tucker, a former Europe head of human resources at Bank of America. 'They know which side has the bargaining power.'

The battering suffered by banks' share prices last year has also made many staff examine the shares and share options element of their bonus in a new light. Some would prefer a larger cash element in their bonus instead.

But Terry at PricewaterhouseCoopers says there is little sign that this will happen. With share prices so low, banks can argue that the only way is up, so new shares and options are more valuable than ever. 'You might have to spin it a bit, but if shares are down 25%, then you're getting more shares given to you,' he says.

Some staff have called for existing share options to be repriced because of their slump in value over the past year. Deutsche Bank has done so for key senior staff.

Damian Carnell, a pay specialist at consultant Towers Perrin, says other banks may be reluctant to follow suit. He says: 'Institutional investors in investment banks are making it clear they don't want repricing. It undermines the link between pay and performance.'

Carnell says that the system, which often locks in options for five or seven years, is designed by its nature to take account of bad years as well as good.

So panicking about one rough year makes little sense.

Looking longer term, Louisa McCarthy, a director in permanent banking positions in London at the headhunter Robert Walters, says financial services firms are extending share option schemes to more staff. Current problems aside, they see it as a way of encouraging loyalty among lower-ranking employees as well as the high-flyers.

Terry, at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says that many banks are also seeking to link an individual's pay more closely to the performance of the team, as opposed to the performance of the bank as a whole. The stark contrast between divisional results last year, with corporate finance and equities lagging while fixed income stormed ahead, has made this more relevant than ever.

One method gaining favour is to issue staff with 'phantom shares' in a unit or division of a firm that, in reality, has no separate stock market listing. The 'shares' are deemed to rise or fall in value according to the performance of the unit, and the employee benefits accordingly.

Terry says the banks with a relatively healthy year in 2001 include BNP Paribas, SSSB and Barclays Capital because of their strong focus on fixed income. This is expected to be reflected in their employees' pay packets.

The big US banks have been among the losers, because of their exposure to unprofitable sectors such as corporate finance and equities.

As bonuses shrink, many staff are likely to pay more attention to non-pecuniary benefits such as flexible hours and flexible pensions, as well as 'concierge' services. The latter enable busy staff to do everything from find a plumber to book a helicopter for a weekend break, through a simple phone call to a concierge firm.

One concierge firm, Enviego, signed deals with UBS Warburg in July and PricewaterhouseCoopers in November.

Sarah Churchman, a human resources executive at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says: 'The service is ideal for our employees. It can provide them with anything as long as it's legal.' Anything except a bigger bonus, that is.