World and Nation

Once Pay is Divvied Up, Little is Left for Banks’ Shareholders

Finding the winners on Wall Street is usually as simple as looking at pay. Rarely are bankers who lose money paid as well as those who make it.

But this year is unusual. A handful of big banks that are struggling in the post-bailout world are, by some measures, the industry’s most magnanimous employers. Roughly 90 cents out of every dollar that these banks earned in 2009 — and sometimes more — is going toward employee salaries, bonuses and benefits, according to company filings.

Amid all the commotion over the large bonuses that many bankers are collecting, what stands out is not only how much the stars are making. It is also how much of the profits that lesser lights are taking home.

To compete with well-heeled rivals, banks like Citigroup are giving their employees an unheard-of cut of the winnings. Citigroup paid its employees so much in 2009 — $24.9 billion — that the company more than wiped out every penny of profit. After paying its employees and returning billions of bailout dollars, Citigroup posted a $1.6 billion annual loss.

Granted, the bankers and traders who work for Wall Street’s biggest moneymakers are still collecting the richest rewards. But this bonus season, banking executives are rethinking how to divide the spoils.

Goldman Sachs, that highest of highfliers, is doing the unthinkable. It is giving its employees an unusually small cut of its profits — about 45 cents out of every dollar — even though its paydays will, in dollar terms, rank among the richest of all time.

That 45-cent figure, known as the payout ratio, represents the amount of compensation that Goldman is meting out relative to the pool of profits available for compensation. Until recently, the ratio for most Wall Street banks hovered around 60 cents of every dollar, in line with other labor- and talent-intensive industries like retailing and health care.

Most Americans would be thrilled to collect a Goldman-style paycheck. If compensation were spread evenly among the bank’s 36,200 employees, each would take home about $447,000.

But to keep up with the Goldmans, laggards like Citigroup are handing out fat slices of their profits, leaving little left over for their shareholders. Citigroup is, in effect, paying its employees $1.45 for every dollar the company took in last year. On average, its workers stand to earn $94,000.

Bank of America, meantime, is spending 88 cents of every dollar it made in 2009 to compensate its workers. At Morgan Stanley, that figure is 94 cents. JPMorgan Chase, which has fared better than those three, paid out 63 cents of every dollar.

Citigroup, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley — all of which have repaid their federal aid — defend their pay practices. Press officers for the banks say a number of factors, from one-time accounting charges to the constant need to lure and retain top producers, drove decisions about compensation.