Wall Street bonuses were down 14 percent on average this year, according to New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and the tales of woe have been numerous. We’ve heard from the middle manager who will no longer be able to afford to eat in fancy restaurants; the managing director whose children are in danger of being deprived of a private-school education; the recent graduate who’d now rather work in Silicon Valley. Never in the field of human history has so much attention been focused on such an aggressively uninteresting group of people.
My experience of bonus season this year was a little different. Until a couple of weeks ago, I worked as an associate in the research group of a large Wall Street bank. I’d already lived through one bonus season, in January 2011, and it had been an oddly ho-hum affair, but this year’s bonus week promised to be different. The markets, of course, had been volatile all through the second half of the year, growth in the U.S. remained anemic, fourth-quarter earnings in most banks, including mine, had been poor, and there was the ongoing problem of Europe. Bonuses were expected to suffer.
All through November and December, as the evaluation committees met, rumors contributed to the poisoning of morale. Several group heads had apparently boasted about how some of their employees would be getting “donuts.” There was talk of heads being chopped. A friend of mine—my only friend at work, really—seemed to take it as a particularly distressing signal that Goldman Sachs was planning to cancel its Christmas party. I’d been to the Christmas parties at my firm before. They were turgid affairs held in antiseptic restaurants in midtown with Italianesque names like Allegretto and Suppurante, at which people drank in moderation, made minimal efforts to converse, and got up to leave as soon as the tiramisu course was taken away. I couldn’t tell why this guy was so incensed; surely canceling the Christmas party was its own kind of bonus. But I took his larger point: things were going to be bad. Very bad.
What were these bonuses, and how big were they likely to be? No one, save those top performers and elite recent hires who had bonus guarantees (sometimes single year, sometimes multiyear) built into their contracts, really knew. The bonus had power because of its mysterious, and imprecise, dimensions: the unquestioning stiff of middle office could be elated with $5,000, while a managing director could feel enraged by millions. In assessing what kind of bonus to expect, I tried to look at things from a commercial perspective: I contributed little of value to the firm, did not work especially hard, and displayed no great zeal for my job. There was no sound basis upon which I could hope to receive anything, beyond a pat on the back and a gentle suggestion that things might turn out differently next year.
Bonus day arrived and the floor was primed for rebellion. Finance people, it turns out, are exceptionally adept at reading signals and pricing in expectations—except when it comes to their own remuneration. Everyone knew bonuses were going to be bad, but the stream of people exiting the managing director’s office with looks of fury written on their faces was its own kind of lesson: out there on the field of battle, crimes, clearly, were being committed against middle-class humanity.
I sat at my desk in silence, waiting my turn. Eventually I was called in, around 6 p.m.—a sure sign that I was exactly where I deserved to be, at the very bottom of the firm’s priorities. The managing director began with a small, tired sigh. “It’s been a long day,” he said. Then, in a solicitous voice, he explained to me that it had been a tough year on Wall Street, and that bonuses were down 20 percent across the firm. My bonus, however, was only 15 percent lower than the previous year. I nodded and explained, also with a sigh, that I understood, that we were at the mercy of the markets, and alas—alas!—there was little to be done but endure; I was nevertheless thankful, I said, for the recognition that came with being above the mean rate of year-on-year bonus depreciation across the firm. In retrospect, I probably overdid the routine a little; some of the flourishes were reminiscent of Restoration comedy. He thanked me for understanding and passed me my bonus envelope.
Relative to what I’d received the year before, and could reasonably expect to receive at my stage of professional advancement, the bonus was a genuine insult. But I thought back to the expectations curve. I was being paid a decent salary to perform dull but easy work among a group of people that inspired no need for conversation, on a timetable that left me hours and hours to walk through midtown each day in search of coffee and obscure food trucks. And I had just been told that thousands of dollars were soon to be paid into my bank account, for no reason other than that was the way things were done on Wall Street. I had never been happier to be insulted in all my life.
I walked back to my desk, keeping the satisfaction locked tight within a carapace of steely unconcern, and took in the scene. The girl next to me sat, frowning, before her Bloomberg screen. The guy one desk along from her looked at me and said nothing. The change was alarming: ordinarily, he would have looked at me, squinted, and said nothing. My friend approached and asked how my bonus had been. “Bullshit,” I replied, lying. “Yeah, mine too,” he said. “This is all bullshit.”
Few people I’ve met in finance feel any great enthusiasm for the substantive meat of what they do on a daily basis. Fiddling with the Excel sheets, putting the pitch books together, marking to market, fixing the macros: the work is repetitive and unglamorous. The people, in sympathy, are themselves repetitive and unglamorous. Of course, there are exceptions, but on the whole, most people don’t work in finance for the finance part. They work in finance for the pay. And when the financial incentives turn out to be less impressive than they’d anticipated, the mood of the place turns foul. Compensation is the oxygen of finance: cut supply, and the beast is dead.
Except, it seems, today. Supply has been cut, but the beast lives. Compensation is down across the board, but people don’t seem to be moving. Bonus season usually acts as a kind of primitive signaling mechanism in the Wall Street job market: poor performers can normally be relied on to take the unsubtle hint of their puny bonus and walk out of the firm. I’ve been told that the rate of self-retrenchment at firms is usually around 10 percent in the month following bonus season, and that most of the self-retrenchers are usually at the level of top management. This year, on some accounts, the rate is closer to 3 percent, and few managers are committing professional auto-da-fé.
People aren’t moving for a simple reason: there’s nowhere to go. The rule used to be: if you don’t like what you’ve been paid, move to another firm. Now the rule is: if you don’t like what you’ve been paid, move slightly in your chair, then get back to work. So people have stayed put, praying that growth picks up, the risk-on rally sticks, and Greece somehow ceases to exist. The months —and perhaps years— ahead promise a Wall Street populated by an army of super-malcontents, under-rewarded by their employers, unenthused by their work, but unable to move elsewhere. This should make for some really unhappy work bays, and some really entertaining photos.