Bonus balancing act

It''s bonus time and the usual round of corporate and individual jousting is just beginning. We look at the winners and losers.

It's bonus time once again and people are anxious to see an accurate reflection of the year's efforts and successes translated into hard cash. Companies are all too aware that staff have invested a great deal of time and energy into plotting their next career move if they don't feel they are being adequately appreciated.

Since a company is only as good as the staff it keeps, increasingly generous bonuses are being employed as a tool to both poach the best bankers from rivals, as well as to retain prime staff to keep the company ahead in a fierce marketplace. So, will we be seeing any drastic changes from last year? 

It's unlikely, according to leading recruitment consultants in Hong Kong, although there will be more extreme emphasis on particular sectors. Indeed, they predict that the best of the bonus bonanza will be picked up by those working in the mergers and acquisitions and equity capital markets teams.

Figures show that some star employees will receive a seven figure reward, while junior team members will get around half of that. Experts are pleased to see a trend developing in which companies are realizing the importance of showing appreciation of teams as a whole, and not just top dog's. Very often the dynamics of a team are as important as individual capabilities - exemplified by equity research teams in the telecommunications, tech and financial services field. 

Securities underwriting has also had a successful year. Since a number of banks pulled product specialists out of the region during the financial crisis and have yet to redeploy them, those bankers remaining can expect an increase in their payouts of 20%-40%. Interestingly, while the technology and telecom sectors have been enjoying the media spotlight, the old economy guys have been doing some very good deals in 2000 as well. According to a report by TMP Worldwide, privatization, especially in China, has produced a big share of the deal flow for the power sector and has led to a bull market for power and utility bankers. These guys, in particular, will enjoy some hefty payouts.

The same report predicts that a stellar year in equity underwriting and a lethargic one in fixed-income will mean, quite simply, that equity staff will get good bonuses, and bond folk will not. As a result, we may see even more bond bankers looking to move into the equity world.

The end of year bonuses will also reflect the trend amongst bankers in the first half of the year to join the dotcom rush. The alarming rate of departure led some firms to offer two-year guaranteed bonus contracts in a bid to stop staff from wandering. However, recent mergers and acquisitions have lead to some of those contracts being passed to someone new, meaning that some companies are finding themselves having to cash out more than they would have liked. ING, for example, recently announced plans to sell the US arm of ING Baring's, because of the burden of compensations on company profits. 

On the issue of whether or not companies find these colossal payouts crippling at the moment, no-one in Asia is admitting as much. But with the financial market growing ever fiercer, and two or three dominant companies ruling the field, it is fast becoming a serious issue. Smaller players are finding it ever more difficult to secure the big deals, and less than buoyant predictions for the coming year mean that they are already in for a rough ride. 

The fact that they are forced to pay the same bonuses as their bigger rivals in order to keep their star performers will make life increasingly difficult. So, the pressure on companies to invent ever more ingenious solutions to tackle the delicate problem of balancing growth and retaining staff looks set to increase still further. 

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