Bonuses - The real worry this year

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While banks are struggling to figure out where the money will come from in the future, they have firmly established where it's not going - to employees.

With the year coming to a close, investment banks will be reporting their full-year results in a few weeks, and many of those glossy annual reports will contain the phrase that shareholders love and employees hate: 'Lower divisional revenue has been offset by lower variable compensation'.

While firms have yet to communicate full-year compensation to their staff, the early signs are dismal. Banks are exiting businesses, focusing on 'core competencies', and feeling cost pressure exacerbated by increased regulation.

Years of 'lower variable compensation' have, of course, occurred in the past - notably 2008. Back then, though, it felt like meagre bonuses were a one-off while banks cleaned up and kitchen-sinked every loss they could find. These days it feels very different, and it appears that 'down is the new flat'. And there's no cause for optimism that investment banks, and particularly trading operations, will return to profitability any time soon, and even if they did, it would be delusional to assume those upswings in revenue would be passed on to employees.

The real worry this year for bonuses, however, goes beyond not being paid out. The real concern is whether the good times are over - forever! The cynical, but maybe not altogether unrealistic assessment of bonuses is that they are not based on the value you add to your firm, but on how much it will take to prevent you from walking out. As such, they are not a reflection of your contribution to the bottom line; they are essentially a punt on the job market. And as long as the headlines from other banks indicate job cuts and closed trading divisions, the amount required to keep you on that retainer seems likely to go ever lower.

Contemplating your employment future may now play on your mind, but this isn't a bad thing. After all, banks attract talent whose skills may be applied elsewhere. And if you take pay out of the equation, the proposition of a career in financial services suddenly becomes a lot less appealing, and seeking a different line of work could well be a smart and satisfying move.

Maybe this bonus round you should worry less about what you'll find in those envelopes, instead considering regaining control of your destiny by starting to look into professions that have more life left in them.

And if you look for a career with that mind-set, banking may not be top of the list. Probably not even close.

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