The cost of hiring investment banking talent is unlikely to fall even though a rash of mergers this year means many Wall Streeters are looking for work or will be soon.

The combination of Salomon Brothers and Smith Barney, the proposed merger between Swiss Bank Corp. and Union Bank of Switzerland, and the retreat from investment banking by two major British institutions, Barclays PLC and National Westminster Bank PLC, means scores of investment bankers, traders, and analysts are available.

Such a glut might seem a chance to ratchet down the pay of these notoriously expensive employees. And that would surely be to the advantage of commercial banks, which have been aggressive buyers of investment banks this year.

To the contrary, executive search firms say few such financial professionals are likely to experience much difficulty finding work at the same pay grade they're accustomed to-or better.

"There's no sense of panic, because the market is so flush now," said T. Lee Pomeroy, an executive recruiter at Egon Zehnder International, New York. "There's still a lot of money to go around."

But not from commercial banks. Industry giants Citicorp and J.P. Morgan & Co. are not expected to bid for large numbers of available investment bankers or traders.

A possible exception is Chase Manhattan Corp., which as a big bond underwriter may extend offers to members of UBS Securities' bond desk.

The bulk of the slack is expected to be taken up by foreign banks setting up shop or expanding in the United States. Professional recruiters, better known as headhunters, expect them to keep salaries and bonuses at their historic highs.

They say Rabobank, Credit Agricole Indosuez, and Bank of Tokyo- Mitsubishi (although saddled with billions in bad loans) are all on the prowl for bankers who can deliver expertise and long lists of customers in specific areas of finance.

For instance, Rabobank, based in the Netherlands, announced in October that it was expanding its North American investment banking team.

Headhunters say these banks will have to bid high to attract talent because their names carry little cachet on Wall Street.

The most difficult time for out-of-work or on-the-fence Wall Streeters is expected shortly after the new year begins. By then SBC Warburg Dillon Read and UBS Securities, whose Swiss parents agreed last week to merge, should have identified the estimated 6,000 staff to be fired in New York and London.

"Come February or March there will be a lot of positioning for jobs," said Gene Shen, managing director at the Whitney Group, a New York executive search firm. "But there are still many banks like Societe Generale, the Japanese banks, and U.S. superregionals looking to build their investment banking business."

Some market sources say Societe Generale, the French bank, would prefer to buy a U.S. investment bank rather than build one and has eyed Hambrecht & Quist Group, the San Francisco investment bank that just suspended negotiations to sell to Merrill Lynch & Co. Societe Generale officials could not be reached for comment.

Wherever Wall Streeters send their resumes, headhunters appear to be advising them to de-emphasize their experience with European investment banks.

Firms like UBS Securities spent huge sums attracting talent from Wall Street's top firms but in most cases this talent did not translate into consistently strong underwriting and advisory business.

"If you worked at UBS but things didn't go great there, it can't hurt to mention you once worked for someone like CS First Boston," advised one headhunter.

In the meantime, high-flying Wall Streeters who get pink-slipped are unlikely to find themselves in reduced circumstances.

Managing directors often negotiate exiting packages that include one to three years of salary and plus bonus money if they are fired. Employees with less seniority can expect to receive six months worth of salary if they are laid off.

The severance packages are generous enough that Mr. Shen said it can be financially and emotionally more advantageous to lose one's job rather than keep it with the investment bank's new owners.

"If you keep your job but aren't with the 'in-crowd' at the merged firm, that can be frustrating," he said.

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