“Bonuses are back” screamed the Fleet Street headlines two months ago after it was revealed Goldman Sachs was funnelling government bail-out money into the pockets of its top investment bankers and deal makers.

The revelations stoked the ire of activists, who held Bonuses are Back pig parties, complete with fake blood and papier mache heads. The Daily Mail went to town on the issue, naming and shaming Goldman staff.

Surely such excess couldn’t happen in egalitarian Australia, where the PM has been going very public about the evils of a fat-cat resurgence?

Think again. If the latest talk among local investment bankers is correct, it seems the nation’s rainmakers are back at the trough through a murky mechanism known as “salary guarantees”.

Current and former investment bankers, none of whom were keen to talk on the record, say guarantees are back in favour among the finance community, some of whom have locked in under-the-radar payments exceeding their base salaries. The guarantees, paid in cash, shares and options, are often used alongside sign-on fees as an inducement to switch jobs. A performance-based bonus structure at one firm is locked in at another, an irresistible lure for the industry’s rising stars.

In late August, the local arm of Bank of America/Merrill Lynch shelled out at least $13 million, and possibly up to $27 million, to draft 10 UBS bankers into its real estate investment banking team, which until then only comprised three members. In retaliation, UBS then poached a team of seven property investment bankers from JP Morgan. According to insiders, both teams are now said to be on fat packages and that’s before any fresh deals have been done.

This morning, The AFR published a comprehensive list of recent industry moves, with the merry-go-round suggesting the big money has returned. The big names on that list, including Brett Le Mesurier, Brian Johnson and Craig Drummond, are unlikely to have made their moves without substantial inducements.

You can add to that list another relatively junior media industry banker, who recently shifted from UBS to Goldman Sachs on a guaranteed annual salary of $1.5 million, according to insiders. That move raised eyebrows among the investment banking community, especially given his unproven track record at the highest level.

The temperature inside the investment banking industry is notoriously difficult to gauge and usually attracts less scrutiny because bankers’ salaries, unlike those of executives, don’t appear in annual reports. But according to the Fin, mid-ranking Morgan Stanley managing directors doubled their base pay in the last year, from $300,000 to $600,000.

Another catalyst has been the return of headhunter activity among mid-tier firms. Bankers have told Crikey that job offers from the multinationals — including UBS, Merrill and JP Morgan — have been flooding in after an 18-month lull. The headhunters rarely name the “multinational investment bank” involved, but offer guaranteed cash for those who want in. Any performance-based bonuses previously mooted at the current employer are locked in as part of the job offer.

Salary guarantees mean publicly (and politically) unpalatable bonuses get obscured by bolstered base salaries and the “business as usual” largesse is locked in — a culture slammed by Kevin Rudd in his speech to the UN yesterday morning. Although the official response will be settled after Pittsburgh, clearly the pay inequality debate in this country doesn’t end with the $10.7 million paid to Qantas’ Geoff Dixon for five months work or the millions sent Rod Pearse’s way at Boral.

The PM has promised to link bankers’ pay to banks’ capital adequacy requirements through to prevent the “excessive risk-taking” that was the hallmark of the descent into chaos that claimed Lehman Borthers. But it’s now these same banks who are returning to the bad old days, seemingly without compunction.

In Britain, the Goldman payouts were the biggest in the company’s 140-year history.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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