Christmas came early this year on Wall Street when investment bankers realized that record profits would drive up yearend bonuses by 30%. But some banks' section 20 employees may find a lump of coal in their stockings.
The biggest, best-established section 20s - as banks' securities underwriting affiliates are known - are widely expected to match their Wall Street counterparts.
But bonuses at the smallest and newest section 20s are expected to come in low. Meager increases also appear to be in store for corporate lenders and some foreign exchange and derivatives specialists.
"Lots of people will be very disappointed," said Alan Johnson, head of Johnson Associates, a Wall Street compensation consultant. "Everybody's expectations are sky-high."
Bonuses will be announced over the next 10 days, so "everybody's holding their breath right now," Mr. Johnson said.
Yearend bonuses exceed half of total annual compensation for investment bankers and traders and can reach as much as 90% of their pay.
Industry sources said it's a safe bet that big increases are in store at the section 20 units of J.P. Morgan & Co., Citicorp, and Chase Manhattan Corp.
"They're having a great year, and their bonuses presumably will reflect that," said Lee Pomeroy, a consultant at Egon Zehnder International, an executive recruiting firm.
Bankers, for their part, are tight-lipped about exactly how much the bonuses will be. "It's certainly going to be a healthy increase over last year," said Ted Virtue, head of the section 20 arm of Bankers Trust New York Corp. But he declined to talk about the numbers.
But headhunters and corporate compensation consultants said the smaller and newer section 20s will be handing out big bonuses only to the very best performers, reducing the bonus pool for everyone else. Newcomers include the U.S. arm of Spain's Banco Santander, which gained section 20 authority last year, and Bank of Boston Corp., which set up its section 20 unit this year.
"You can't or won't pay everybody, so you have to make some tough decisions," said Mr. Johnson.
A section 20's size isn't the sole determinant of how generous it will be. Some specialties are getting bigger rewards than others.
The most profitable departments - equities, high-yield bonds, corporate finance, and mergers and acquisitions - are getting the fattest holiday pay packets, sources said. Corporate lenders and "plain-vanilla" derivatives and foreign exchange departments are in for smaller bonuses.
Another trend this year at both Wall Street and section 20 firms are significantly broadened programs of equity compensation for top performers.
The new standard, sources said, is restricted stock that cannot be sold for a set period - typically three years. These "golden handcuffs" are seen as a way of retaining top talent.
For senior managers, stock may constitute as much as 30% of compensation, according to a survey released last month by Russell Reynolds Associates, an international executive recruiting firm. A managing director may get 45% to 50% of bonus payments exceeding $1 million in some form of restricted equity, while lower-level employees may find anything over $100,000 is equity-related.
Firms paying lower-than-expected bonuses in cash may see employees rush for the door, said Mr. Johnson, because "you've got somebody who's mad and mobile."