We Thought Our Pay Would Be Higher, Wall Streeters Say in Poll

Financial professionals fret about their pay (too low), their industry (shrinking), and their regulators (don't even get them started).

Ask Main Street about Wall Street and you probably won’t hear this: Banker pay is surprisingly low. But that’s what financial professionals say.

Asked whether they earn more or less than they expected when they decided to pursue a finance career, 48 percent of respondents in the Bloomberg Markets Global Poll say compensation is less or much less than they had hoped for. Just 14 percent say their pay exceeds expectations. A third say they earn about what they thought they would.

And that’s not the only worry, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its June issue. The mid-April survey of traders, analysts, money managers, and executives who are Bloom­berg customers finds concern that Wall Street may continue to shrink as tighter regulations crimp profits. And many re­spondents have little faith that regulators will prevent the next meltdown. Banks, they say, are still too big to fail.

The largest banks, after getting bailed out in 2008 and 2009, are under pressure to reduce costs as new regulations force them to use less leverage, take less risk, and get out of some businesses altogether. That means cutting pay. It’s a topic executives discuss every quarter. In earnings calls in April, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman and JPMorgan Chase CFO Marianne Lake were among those boasting about declines in employee pay as a portion of revenue.

The trend is clear. Goldman Sachs, for one, set aside $12.7 billion for compensa­tion last year, or 36.8 percent of revenue. Since the company went public in 1999, the only lower number was 36 percent in 2009. The 2014 figure averages out to $373,265 per employee, down from $504,750 in 2007.

“They’re still making decent money, but it’s nothing like 2007,” says Jeanne Bran­thover, head of the financial services division at Boyden Global Executive Search. “It’s harder to get a big bonus because there are more metrics that come into play, in­cluding how well the whole firm does.”

Still, while bankers may complain about getting hit in the wallet, buy-side employ­ees are seeing their pay hold up fine, Bran­thover says. “Areas of finance like wealth management, asset management, which didn’t suffer too much during the crisis, are still doing well,” she says. The poll is a rep­resentative sample of Bloomberg custom­ers, so it covers both the buy and sell sides.

Overall, the future of Wall Street in the next decade looks smaller: Forty-three percent say it will shrink as reg­ulation erodes opportunities, while a sur­prisingly high 18 percent say it will collapse in another crisis. Just 7 percent pick the rosy outlook of growth and greater profit.

Even as they see shrinkage, respondents aren’t optimistic that regulators have fixed a key problem from 2008, when the col­lapse of Lehman Brothers left the finan­cial system teetering. Banks are still too big to fail, 71 percent of those polled say, either because they’re too complex (the most popular response) or because regu­lators focus on the wrong things. Only 21 percent say too big to fail has been fixed through decreased leverage or regulatory plans to wind down troubled companies.

If banks are still too big to fail, don’t just blame the regulators. Thomas Hoenig, vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insur­ance Corp., says the fault may lie with the institutions themselves. “They’re just too big and complex to manage,” he says. “Ev­ery time they turn around, they break a rule, violate some sanction. That’s why there is continuing pressure to break them up. The market will force the biggest banks to shrink, divest, or even break up.”

While financial pros complain about reg­ulations, there’s a split, with 39 percent say­ing there has been significant or extensive damage to their business. A slim majority of 51 percent say the impact has been lim­ited or nonexistent. Some 5 percent say reg­ulations have actually been good for them.

When it comes to compensation, finan­cial professionals aren’t just worried about their own. They’re also concerned about income inequality across society—up to a point. The best way to address that, 43 percent of respondents say, is for govern­ment to spend more on education and in­frastructure. Another 25 percent say taxes should be cut to promote growth, while 13 percent say inequality isn’t a problem. On the other hand, relatively few go with the option that might hit closest to home: Just 16 percent recommend taxing the rich.

The Bloomberg Markets Global Poll gathered responses from 1,280 Bloomberg terminal subscribers. It was conducted April 14 and 15 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points. 

This story appears in the June 2015 issue of Bloomberg Markets.