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Wall St. bonuses rise 15%, profits fall

NEW YORK — On Wall Street, profits are down and the number of workers is shrinking.

Bonuses, however, continue to increase.

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Cash bonuses paid to Wall Street employees in New York City rose 15 percent on average last year, to $164,530, according to estimates Wednesday from Thomas P. DiNapoli, the state comptroller. That was the biggest average bonus since 2007, the year before the financial crisis struck.

Overall, workers in the financial industry in the city made $26.7 billion in bonuses last year, a number that, again, was the highest level since the crisis. The bonus figures encompass everyone from the low-ranking employee to the chief executive, so high payouts to top managers can bring up the average.

That bonuses went up amid a challenging environment for the banks reflects a cardinal rule of Wall Street: Firms are willing to pay big for the top talent. This held true even as profits overall fell 30 percent to $16.7 billion, according to the comptroller’s report.

The cash haul included payments that had been granted in prior years. This was because Wall Street firms, since the crisis, have sought to keep a temporary lid on costs by deferring a portion of cash compensation. Some of this cash that had been withheld was paid out last year, making bonuses larger than they otherwise might be.

While Wall Street bonuses have concerned some lawmakers in Washington in recent years, they are an important ingredient in the industry’s pay, often making up the bulk of workers’ compensation.

From the perspective of the city, which had expected bonuses to go down, the increase is welcome news, bolstering a major source of tax revenue. DiNapoli estimated that the higher bonuses could translate into $100 million in tax revenue for the city in the current fiscal year above what had been anticipated.

A range of businesses in New York — from restaurants to luxury real estate — pin their fortunes to Wall Street pay. While the financial industry makes up just 5 percent of jobs in the city, those jobs account for 22 percent of the city’s wages, DiNapoli said.

The number of jobs in finance declined slightly last year, as firms sought to keep costs in check. The industry employed 165,200 people as of December, a decline of 1.2 percent from the prior year and the second straight year of decline.

Wall Street compensation continues to dwarf the pay in other industries. The Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal-leaning research group, said on Wednesday that the $26.7 billion in bonuses would be enough to more than double the pay of the 1.1 million full-time minimum wage workers in the United States.

The average pay of Wall Street employees, including salary and bonuses, was $360,700 in 2012, the last year for which data are available — more than five times higher than in the rest of the private sector, according to the comptroller’s report.

And yet, Wall Street continues to face challenges, even with the increase in bonuses. After past economic downturns, the securities industry “is what led us out of a tough economic time,” DiNapoli said.

“That has not been the case with our current recovery,” he said.

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