Goldman's bonus play underscores broader strategy

NEW YORK Thu Oct 15, 2009 5:23pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Goldman Sachs Group Inc opted to devote a smaller chunk of revenue to compensation in the latest quarter in what may be a sop to critics angry about a bonus bonanza so soon after the bank took billions in government funds.

But the move also helped boost quarterly earnings. And Goldman Sachs employees need not lose any sleep, because they are still on track to receive an average of $630,000 each, rivaling their record bonus haul in 2007.

Further, that $630,000 amount, which places the bank far ahead of rivals, is based on Goldman's full workforce, including assistants and other support staff.

Goldman has been heavily criticized for setting aside so much for its bonus pool so soon after the firm repaid $10 billion in taxpayer bailout funds. So far this year, Goldman has set aside about $16.7 billion for bonuses, and looks well on track to break the $20 billion mark.

Goldman Chief Financial Officer David Viniar told reporters on a conference call only that the bank was giving "a lot of thought" to how employees would be compensated at year-end.

Lawrence White, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, said Goldman wishes everyone would simply leave it alone -- but that will not happen as long as it continues to stash away billions for bonuses.

"But ten-digit numbers for the quarter, 11 digit numbers for the year -- that has to attract attention," White said. "There is a certain amount of tone deafness, a certain amount of arrogance, and a certain amount of, 'Hey we are good and we want to make sure we keep our employees happy.'"

While Goldman typically devotes about half its net earnings to pay and benefits, another robust quarter allowed Goldman to drop the ratio of compensation to revenue to about 43 percent while still setting aside $5.4 billion for pay.

Analysts said the move padded quarterly earnings, which in fact healthily beat analysts' forecasts.

"This upside does not qualify as high on the 'quality' scale," Roger Freeman, an analyst with Barclay's Capital, said in a research note.

DIVIDING THE POOL

How the bonus pool will be divided is also a question for Goldman.

In the past, Goldman has concentrated its biggest bonus pay at the top. Goldman's top 200 bonus recipients received a combined $994.68 million in bonuses last year, an average of about $5 million per employee, according to a report released earlier this year by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. The firm-wide average for total compensation was closer to about $364,000.

Wall Street recruiters and headhunters said earlier this year that some of Goldman's star traders, especially those in high-growth areas like currency, commodities and fixed income, are in for the biggest payouts.

Among them are David Heller, Harvey Schwartz, Edward Eisler and Pablo Salame, all of whom lead units that oversee sales and trading.

In its final assessment, Goldman could also choose to donate some of its bonus pool to charity, or direct employees to do so.

Goldman announced it had made a $200 million donation to the Goldman Sachs Foundation, its not-for-profit charitable arm. Viniar would not say whether that donation was part of a larger good-will campaign and if the company would repeat it.

Viniar insisted the company is keenly aware of the world outside of Goldman, which continues to suffer from job losses and home foreclosures.

"We are very focused on what is going on in the world," Viniar said. "We are focused on the economic climate."

But he said the firm was committed to paying for performance -- performance he called "fantastic" in light of the downturn of the larger economy and the near-collapse of the financial sector last year.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; Editing by Richard Chang and Matthew Lewis)