Wall Street Struggles With Executive Pay

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Wall Street firms are finding it tough to set up compensation packages that are considered appropriate by the public and adequate to retain top talent.

The most high-profile pay packages, of course, are those of the CEO and other top earners that must be disclosed in regulatory filings.

But while top management may get raises or pay cuts or see more of their compensation weighted in stock, it's hard to get a read on what's going on with the rank and file employees.

For instance, Citigroup ( C), like most other Wall Street banks, has been trending toward more bonus pay in stock, rather than cash, for traders and investment bankers. The shift has been gradual over the past few years and is based both on guidance from the Obama administration's so-called "pay czar" and a widespread belief that, in the past, banker incentives were not aligned closely enough with risk management and the broader health of the company.

But unlike reports suggesting that there is a consistent level of cash vs. stock for all employees, there is no broad mandate at Citi to pay traders and investment bankers the same way across the board. Some individuals may receive 65% of their pay in cash, while others might get a 50-50 cash-stock split, according to a source familiar with the matter.

"People have been getting paid more in stock, but not everyone is getting the same formula - it's just very different," said the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Across Wall Street, the norm has moved more toward stock-based compensation over the past few years. The change began in 2009, when the Obama administration hired Kenneth Feinberg to oversee compensation practices at bailed-out companies. He was installed after public furor over bonuses at American International Group ( AIG).

Feinberg had direct authority over the top paid employees at firms that still owed the government money and famously kept companies like Citi and AIG on a short leash. Citi lost one of its most profitable traders, Andrew Hall, divesting his commodities trading division because of his $100 million payout. AIG CEO Robert Benmosche battled with Feinberg over the restrictions, and ultimately the insurer's general counsel and her deputy left because they felt undercompensated.

But last year marked a turning point in the Wall Street pay saga: Nearly all of the big bailout cases had returned their government money and were able to make compensation decisions on their own. Their pay packages are being closely watched as an indication of whether big banks are installing proper risk-management and incentive strategies.

So far, it's hard to find a common theme.

Citi's board boosted CEO Vikram Pandit's base salary to $1.75 million last year from $1 the previous year, as the firm returned to profitability. Bank of America ( BAC) left CEO Brian Moynihan's base salary unchanged for 2010 and shifted much of his bonus into stock, as its stock price lagged and the company lost billions of dollars. The head of its investment bank, Thomas Montag, got a much higher salary than Moynihan, but much of it was also weighted in restricted stock. Additionally, the firm is reportedly offering traders a much higher percentage of their salaries in cash than competing firms.

It's yet to be seen whether the lucrative packages lead BofA to become a better trading enterprise. The best trading performance during the fourth quarter actually came from JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), which deftly navigated tough conditions in the credit markets. But during 2010, the average pay per person at declined at JPMorgan, because the firm hired more people and the bonus pool shrank.

It's not clear what CEO Jamie Dimon will receive, since the firm hasn't reported the information yet in a regulatory filing. Neither has Wells Fargo ( WFC), which doesn't have a large presence in Wall Street trading activities.

On the other hand, Goldman Sachs ( GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein got a big salary and bonus bump despite the firm's profit decline. Morgan Stanley ( MS) CEO James Gorman is reportedly getting a cut in pay and lowering traders' compensation, despite the company's better performance in 2010 as it moves forward on a restructuring plan.

-- Written by Lauren Tara LaCapra in New York.

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