For U.S. bond traders, the Grinch may steal bonuses

NEW YORK Tue Oct 15, 2013 8:13pm EDT

NEW YORK Oct 15 (Reuters) - With anemic bond trading revenue over the past few months hurting Wall Street profits, pay cuts and even layoffs are back on the table just when the future had started looking up for traders.

Overall, bonuses on fixed-income, currency, and commodity trading desks will likely be down 10 percent to 15 percent, said Alan Johnson, head of the Wall Street compensation consulting firm Johnson Associates. It could be the third or fourth year in a row in which some Wall Street bond traders get $0 bonus checks, he added.

Just two months ago Johnson had predicted bonus increases of 5 percent to 15 percent for fixed-income traders, but since then the Federal Reserve has decided not to start winding down its bond buying stimulus program, and gridlock has hobbled Washington. Both have alarmed investors who are unsure of where markets are heading, and are reluctant to make huge bets that could quickly turn against them.

On Tuesday, Citigroup Inc's posted ho-hum earnings after a sharper-than-expected 26 percent drop in fixed-income trading revenue, excluding accounting adjustments. On Friday, JPMorgan Chase & Co reported a more moderate decline in revenue from that business, but analysts expect Wall Street rivals Bank of America Corp, Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Morgan Stanley to report 20 percent to 30 percent declines later this week.

If fixed-income trading volumes do not improve, banks may be forced to reduce headcount again, adding to the tens of thousands of jobs the industry has already shed since the financial crisis of 2008, recruiters, analysts and other industry sources said.

"In this kind of environment, expense initiatives are always going to be on the table," said Tom Jalics, senior investment analyst at Key Private Bank. "Senior-level management is keenly focused on containing expenses - it's the buzzword of today and it's going to be around for awhile."

On Citigroup's conference call on Tuesday, analysts peppered Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach with questions about the bank's expenses and whether it had to do more to cut costs.

Gerspach said Citi set aside less money for bonuses, and acknowledged that there could be some "variability" in expenses on a quarterly basis. But he added the bank does not expect to make any big cost-cutting announcements in the near-term.

Earlier in the day, when asked about the possibility of layoffs in fixed-income, currencies, and commodities trading, Gerspach told reporters, "We are comfortable that we have the business appropriately sized."

Fred Cannon, analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc, said it would take six months to a year of similarly weak results before the bank would consider another round of layoffs.

"I don't think they want to make a strategic decision based on one quarter," he said.

Traders and other Wall Street professionals are getting higher base salaries than they did before the crisis. Analysts said that meant if volumes stayed low for long enough, cutting bonuses can only do so much to cut a bank's costs, and layoffs would be more likely.

"They will likely have to reduce headcount," David Knutson, a senior research analyst at Legal & General Investment Management America. "That is a page out of any large bank's playbook nowadays."

A mid-level Wall Street trader might earn $500,000. Before the crisis, total compensation might have been closer to $800,000, said Johnson of the Wall Street compensation consulting firm Johnson Associates.

After several years of cost-cutting, bond traders have become less insistent on big bonuses and more grateful to be employed at all, said Jeremie Lempkowicz, managing director at the executive search firm Watson Ford International.

"A few months ago, having a job was the bonus, basically," said Lempkowicz. "People who were laid off were keen to get a pay cut just to have a job."

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