An internal drama is unfolding over special bonuses at Bank of America

Some bankers are allowed to sell their 2020 bonus shares compensation only at the end of four years

In this Jan. 19, 2010, photo, a branch office of Bank of America is shown in New York. Bank of America Corp. said Wednesday, Jan. 20, it lost $5.2 billion during the final three months of 2009 as consumers struggled to make their mortgage and credit card payments. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan) *** Local Caption ***  NYML301_Earns_Bank_of_America.jpg
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Anger is building in the senior ranks at Bank of America after the company waived an unpopular new bonus policy for top traders and deal makers while keeping the plan in place for other employees.

At issue is a grant of company stock that high earners – generally those making $1 million or more – received for the first time as part of their 2020 compensation. Instead of vesting in equal parts over a set period, as such awards typically do, these bonuses have a “cliff vest” provision making the shares eligible for sale only at the end of four years.

An internal drama is unfolding over the past couple of weeks, according to sources.

Initially, the bank planned to apply the new pay structure broadly. But veterans in investment banking and trading revolted upon hearing they’d have to stay through 2024 to reap bonuses for 2020, and management agreed to exempt them.

Chief executive Brian Moynihan acknowledged the blowback in a January 27 Bloomberg TV interview, saying the change in policy “didn’t work the way some people wanted it to, so we fixed it”.

Yet senior colleagues in corporate and commercial banking, a less powerful cohort, soon learned that their awards are still subject to the vesting restrictions. That’s when the grousing began, the sources said. In recent days, employees have been gathering on calls to vent frustrations and discuss options.

The decision touched a raw nerve. Bank of America is torn by long-simmering jealousies and divisions among its staff of more than 200,000, many dating back to the shotgun marriage with Merrill Lynch in the 2008 financial crisis. An uneven approach to compensation risks exacerbating those strains at a time when most of the company is working from home and collaboration is at a premium.

While compensation on Wall Street is always a balancing act, the circumstances were unusually tricky for Mr Moynihan. Many traders and bankers had a great year, thriving as markets swung, and they expected to be rewarded. But Bank of America tripled its provisions for credit losses to more than $11 billion, anticipating that borrowers battered by the pandemic may default. Net income for the year plunged 35 per cent.

“You’ve got to pay for performance, and the shareholder has to benefit, too,” Mr Moynihan said in the interview.

Wall Street has been mostly conservative with 2020 remuneration. JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs held compensation per employee in check, and Citigroup cut bonuses for dozens of top executives after the bank was reprimanded by regulators.

Throughout, Bank of America reduced cash payouts and lengthened the vesting periods for normal stock awards. Without the new bonuses, many executives would have faced pay cuts, according to the sources.

In the interview, Mr Moynihan said the company would be divvying up a total of $10bn to $11bn of incentive compensation for 2020. Investment bankers and traders typically get a greater share of their pay in equity than employees elsewhere in the company.

“Our bonus pools are down year-over-year, yet some teammates made more money and some made less money,” Mr Moynihan said.

The cliff-vest provision is especially problematic for long-serving executives in corporate and commercial banking who expected to qualify for what’s known internally as the “rule of 60”. Previously, Bank of America let staff retire with all deferred pay so long as their age plus a minimum of 10 years served at the company equaled 60. That treasured perquisite now excludes the new bonuses.

Exacerbating those frustrations, the sources said, is the decision to exempt investment bankers from the vesting restrictions, seen as a golden handcuff, but enforce them for corporate bankers. Both groups are part of the same division – global corporate and investment banking – run by Matthew Koder.

Such resentments have divided big banks for years. Throughout the industry, rain-makers who land multibillion-dollar merger mandates or big-ticket corporate financings are lionized and can pull down eight-figure pay packages. Meantime, traditional bankers responsible for lower-margin activities such as lending or cash management earn less and feel like second-class citizens.

Bank of America’s powerful chief operating officer, Tom Montag, who joined with the Merrill acquisition, is widely seen as loyal to traders and investment bankers. Some veterans in commercial banking feel they’re being punished unfairly for the pandemic, a calamity beyond their control, the sources said.