When a Bonus Bump's Not Really a Bump

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To a news reporter or editor, bonuses for financial professionals seem to come in just three sizes: large, extra large and jumbo.

Take Bloomberg News' quarterly survey of Wall Street bonus expectations, published Friday under the lurid headline, "Bankers Expect Rising Bonus Pay to Break Records in Global Poll." Read past the headline, and the story's second sentence says "most executives expect their bonuses to match or exceed last year's, with 1 in 10 predicting their best-ever payout." Huh?

There's no mention that the total bonus pool for Wall Street collapsed 44 percent last year from 2007, according to what is probably the single most widely quoted estimate, issued by the New York State Comptroller. Meanwhile, financial markets have rallied this year and most big global financial institutions have returned to profitability after governments stepped in to stanch the crisis. In that context, how giddy is the typical recipient likely to feel about matching last year's bonus payout?

Expectations revealed by the Bloomberg poll appear even more conservative than the results of a similar eFinancialCareers poll published Oct. 6. For instance, only 30 percent of Bloomberg's U.S. respondents say they expect their 2009 bonus will be higher than last year. In the eFC survey, 36 percent looked for a bigger payout this year (43 percent after excluding respondents who expect no bonus). Bloomberg interviewed a random sample of 1,452 users in six continents between Oct. 23 - 27. The eFC bonus survey, administered online to 1,074 users on Sept. 15 - 29, was limited to professionals currently employed in the U.S.

Although its survey results were less rosy than eFC users' rather cautious expectations a month earlier, Bloomberg observes: "The survey responses are at odds with populist outrage unleashed when American International Group Inc. earlier this year paid bonuses to the financial products unit."

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