Bank Trader Bonuses – should they be paid if the bank makes a loss?

Bank Trader Bonuses – should they be paid if the bank makes a loss?

I have been cornered at a number of dinner parties and other discussions in recent years to be grilled on the controversial and sometimes hostile subject about whether or not the traders, and indeed deal originators, within investment banks should be paid substantial bonuses if the bank itself makes a loss. Having signed-off on such bonuses in the past I know what it feels like when you see the size of the number, sometimes staggeringly large, staring at you on the page, (but then most would gulp at our daily turnover of around US$ 3 billion) so I have tried to rationalise the argument ‘for’ or ‘against’.

In the early days of such traders, (latter part of the 1970’s and first half of the 1980’s), it was commonplace that the bank provided the desk, the capital, the prestige name of the bank, and the support operations. Traders were only paid a nominal salary to live on but would be entitled to a flat-rate bonus calculated at up to 10% of the net profits they generated for the bank. These traders were never considered part of the ‘family’ within the bank, and were remote to the culture of the bank. They were commonly referred to as ‘intrapreneurs’. This was a reasonable strategy for the bank in that they did not have the exposure of substantial salaries to people who might not perform, and the modest salary incentivised the trader to make profits. Many types of companies today adopt this attitude, and it is certainly a better business model than the soccer players I refer to below.

A significantly exaggerated example of this, and well recorded in books such as ‘Liars Poker’ by Michael Lewis, was the trading environment of the then Solomon Brothers investment house which was a ruthless production line of traders who performed to required levels of profit, or were discarded and replaced at will.

An analogy could be a comparison with soccer players who have a limited period of productivity (typically 5 – 10 years) who are paid substantial remuneration whilst valuable, but are readily discarded once their star no longer shines. Headhunters in banking play the role of the soccer player’s personal manager in both initiating transfer of traders between banks, and negotiating any settlement required to be paid to the former bank to overcome notice periods, garden leave, poaching costs, etc. Traders do not have a career as such, they have a window of opportunity to make large amounts of money before they burn out, and their general philosophy revolves around this short-term opportunism.

To add to this unitary approach it should also be stressed that there are a number of separate product areas within an investment bank, and they have separate profit centres which become the accumulated profit or loss of the bank. In general there is no interlinking of these profit centres within the bank, nor interdependency on performance. Therefore I suggest that a trader who performs well is entitled to their bonus, irrespective of its size, as it only reflects the quality of the person as a realised income contributor. I must emphasise that the profit against which the bonus is calculated should be fully realised without any future exposure. Accrued profits, e.g. on transactions that still have future potential exposure, is a contentious subject, and needs to be agreed on a transaction-by-transaction basis. If a trader makes losses not only do they not receive a bonus, but usually they lose their trading seat – and possibly their future as a trader.

At a simple level would you expect a car salesperson to forego the commissions due on their sales if the car manufacturer makes a loss? Scale this up to a salesperson who sells a $40 million commercial airliner on which I am led to understand they can earn a commission up to 7% of sales value. And both of these sales people will probably have a far longer career than a trader.

At the end of the day the primary difference between other corporates and investment banks is the scale of the commissions/bonuses. To put this into context an investment bank can easily turnover as much in a few days as a major corporate turns over in a year.

Please note that this blog relates to business income generators, not the fat-cats who sit at the top and mostly still receive bonuses when the bank makes a loss – this is a completely different story.