One booming growth area on Wall Street — bonuses — has lost its momentum, a weakening particularly noticeable at banking companies involved in mergers.

Combinations of commercial banks and investment banks have indeed been the story this year. One of the biggest deals — Chase Manhattan Corp.’s bid to buy J.P. Morgan & Co. — is expected to close by yearend. Others have included Credit Suisse Group’s purchase of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc. and UBS AG’s pickup of Paine Webber Group Inc., both of which have closed.

The current quarter has been noticeably weak for virtually all types of capital markets activities, especially trading, debt underwriting, and loan syndication. Business in some areas has been so weak that many expect layoffs to hit Wall Street by early next year.

With the displacement from mergers and the prospect of layoffs, companies are scrambling to keep their prized talent happy, and that effort is said to be shrinking the bonus pool for other investment bank employees. Fixed costs at many banking companies are rising as they offer stay-put guarantees and other retention tools to star talent and make financial promises to lure bankers away from rivals.

“You have to pay your top performers, or you’ll lose them,” said Andrea d’Chalnoky, a consultant at Spencer Stuart & Associates in New York. If the bonus pool is not large enough to make everyone happy, average- and below-average performers might feel squeezed, and even worse, “below-average performers might, quite frankly, lose their jobs,” she said.

Though business has slowed down somewhat for investment bankers who specialize in telecommunications and technology deals, the banks “still need to retain top people, because they’re hard to come by,” Ms. d’Chalnoky said.

Consultants said this year’s bonuses will also vary significantly in different lines of business. This year’s profits at most commercial banks’ investment banking units are expected to be higher than last year, though the heady gains of earlier this year have been dampened by the recent market slowdown.

Top performers stand to have 30% to 40% increases in bonuses, while those in losing business lines might see bonuses slashed between 10% and 20%, the consultants said.

Alan Johnson, a managing director of Johnson Associates, a New York firm that tracks compensation trends on Wall Street, said bankers in the mergers and acquisitions, underwriting, and corporate finance departments will do well, while the high-yield, public finance, and trading groups will fall short. The corporate staff will end up somewhere in between, he said.

Some observers said they have only a vague idea of what will happen regarding the size of the bonus pools and the predetermined allocations for investment banking superstars.

Mike Holt, a compensation consultant at William Mercer Inc., said this year’s bonuses “are going to be pretty flat — not down, but certainly not up very much.”

There was “enough good performance in the early part of the year” to ensure that the bonus pool will not go down, he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

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