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Goldman’s Bonus Back-Off Backs Other Banks Into a Corner

For the top brass at Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase or Citigroup to draw their typical bonuses this year would be a ‘public relations disaster,’ says one expert.

September 16, 2011
By forgoing bonuses this year, Goldman Sachs executives have effectively forced the issue upon the rest of Wall Street, according to corporate governance research firm the Corporate Library.

“One would expect the other banks to follow suit,” said Paul Hodgson, senior research associate at the Portland, Maine-based watchdog group. For the top brass at Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase or Citigroup to draw their typical bonuses this year would be a “public relations disaster,” he added.

Other banks have not yet announced plans to follow suit, but the move is not without precedent. In December 2007, Morgan Stanley chief executive John Mack gave up his $4 million bonus amid the early stages of the subprime mortgage crisis. Industry watchers expect the firm to do the same thing this year, though Morgan Stanley declined comment.

By Wall Street standards, however, Mack’s $4 million martyrdom can be considered no more than a symbolic gesture. Last year, Goldman chief executive Lloyd Blankfein and his four top lieutenants took home $302 million in bonuses. The team announced they would not accept bonuses this year.

While 2008 saw a sizable dip in revenue and a 40 percent slide in Goldman’s stock price, this year’s bonuses probably still would have been substantial. The company did not detail how much money the executives were giving up, saying only that each would simply draw his $600,000 base salary.

As the bank least affected by the financial crisis so far, Goldman’s move is even more meaningful, Hodgson said, than it would be from a firm that’s been “lacerated by this crisis.”

“You wouldn’t expect any bonuses at a firm like AIG, for example,” he said.

Merrill Lynch, which was forced into an acquisition by Bank of America in September, said no decisions have been made yet regarding bonuses. Last year, however, Merrill Lynch’s top eight executives took home $97 million between signing bonuses and severance payouts.

A Merrill spokesman pointed out that the bank ends its fiscal year in December, while Goldman Sachs and others close their books in November. In other words, there’s still time to make such decisions.

Filed by Hilary Potkewitz Souccar of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.