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Bay Street sees holiday cheer in bonuses Add to ...

Bonus season is going to be brighter on Bay Street than Wall Street.

In New York, a recent report said bonuses for investment bankers and traders at securities firms will likely be down as much as 30 per cent this year. Firms are struggling to make as much money, now that markets are suffering, and are cutting bonuses as a result.

But in Canada’s key financial centres, it’s a different – and more prosperous – story.

With Canadian banks having ended their fiscal years on Oct. 31, their securities arms are in the middle of telling employees what bonuses they earned. The summary: Pay is going up, at least a little bit, at some of the biggest Canadian firms, according to people who work in the industry.

Other firms are trimming bonuses somewhat. But over all, there is no dramatic pay drop coming for employees at the larger firms. And in light of what was a down year for profits for most Canadian bank-owned brokerages, and a murky outlook for next year, just holding steady is a victory for securities division employees.

The numbers vary by bank and by department. Some mining investment bankers had a good year, given all the merger and financing activity in that part of the market. Bond traders didn’t fare quite as well.

Why the better situation in Canada? Some of it is timing. U.S. banks end their fiscal years on Dec. 31, so they get the full effect of the slow markets in the second half of the year. Canadian bank year-end is Oct. 31, so the year captures the November and December of 2010, which were relatively good.

The result is that Canadian bank bosses faced the decision between “paying down” to reflect the tough environment this autumn, or “paying up” to give credit for good results earlier in the year. It appears that in some cases, the managers chose the latter.

Unlike Wall Street, where compensation surveys and regulators give insight into bonuses, it’s tougher to get a handle on pay in Canada. The biggest investment dealers are owned by banks such as Royal Bank of Canada, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Toronto-Dominion Bank, and they don’t break out compensation numbers for their investment banking and trading operations. But there are clues.

CIBC gave its investment bankers and traders their bonus numbers last week. Word out of the firm is that for investment bankers, pay was generally up “modestly.” Considering that CIBC reported a higher profit from its wholesale division, that’s no surprise.

The four big banks that have already reported their year-end results have given little sign in the numbers of big pay cuts. For the group – CIBC, RBC, TD and Bank of Nova Scotia – average pay per employee rose.

Digging deeper, the expense line that includes pay for the securities divisions is on the rise, even after accounting for new hires. That may not all be bonus cheques, but a big chunk of it is, and it suggests that at the very least, the average bonus is pretty close to holding steady.

There’s also little prospect for a wave of pink slips in Canada.

Huge global firms like UBS AG and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are cutting thousands of jobs to cope with slower business. But Canada’s bank-owned firms spent 2011 hiring and acquiring and – aside from some year-end roster shuffles – have not made any significant changes to their staffing levels. Total head-count in the securities businesses of the four big firms that have reported so far is up 7 per cent.

That’s not to say there’s no pain in Canadian banking. It’s just concentrated at the boutique level, where firms are more closely tied to the resource boom, and are struggling of late. For example, bonuses at independent firm GMP Capital have come off precipitously. Incentive compensation in the first nine months of GMP’s fiscal year has fallen by 24 per cent. At smaller brokerages that are owned by their employees, there is talk of partners having to write cheques to cover losses.

But all in all, it’s a good year to work on Bay Street, and an even better year to work for one of the big banks.

Follow on Twitter: @boyderman

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