On Wall Street a fat year means big bonuses. Let the party begin.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – THIS HOLIDAY SEASON IS SHAPING UP to be especially joyous on Wall Street--so filled with good cheer and fat bonuses (not necessarily in that order) that some very well-off folks far from the Street are taking notice. I was up in Boston the other day visiting with Jack Welch at his magnificent townhouse on Beacon Hill. We were having a wide-ranging discussion when at one point the talk turned to Wall Street, and the legendary retired CEO of GE began marveling at what a splendiferous year 2005 has been for bankers and brokers. "Flush times down there," he said in his trademark rasp. "I think they are going to have their best year since the turn of the century."
Yes, bonus expectations couldn't be higher. And by all accounts they will be met. Not that the markets soared this year. While certain sectors were obviously stud performers (even after giving back gains recently, the NYSE energy index is still up 26% year to date), the major stock indexes are all hovering around flat (bonds haven't been great shakes either). But there was plenty of volatility, which is always a good thing for the men and women with a piece of the action. And despite the one-two-three economic punches of hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, there was no autumn swoon on the Street.
In fact, with oil and gasoline prices falling, the fourth quarter is shaping up to be a humdinger, and confidence on the Street is running high. Yes, Delphi and Delta went into Chapter 11. But bankruptcies actually create business for Wall Street. And, yes, there was one itsy Enron-esque debacle (the implosion of Refco), but the damage appears to be contained. All in all, 2005 has been pretty much devoid of morale-sapping events. And most important of all for the i-bankers, the business of mergers and acquisitions clicked into high gear after years of subpar activity.
Okay, so just how big will the bucks be? Jacques Nordeman, CEO of Nordeman Grimm, an executive-search firm that specializes in recruiting top-notch Wall Street bankers, says that top performers among his clientele can expect to see bonuses 20% to 30% higher this year than last. For investment bankers at the top of the food chain (those with at least ten years' experience and base pay of about $250,000), we are talking about bonuses as high as $2 million to $3 million or more. That's some serious scratch.
What's the good of all that cash if you don't spend it? While the Street set awaits its windfall, the money is already flowing like $200 bottles of Krug champagne at some of Wall Street's most torrid hot zones. In particular, I'm talking about the high-end steakhouse Del Frisco's in Midtown Manhattan. There have been alpha-banker chophouses in New York City since before the time of J.P. Morgan--from Delmonico's, Peter Luger, and Keens, to Sparks and the Palm, to Smith & Wollensky and Ben Benson's. No doubt they're all still doing a pretty good job of separating Wall Street man from money right now. But the most public displays of "Wall Street" ebullience are in Midtown these days, and the cavernous house of carniverousness on Sixth Avenue and 48th Street is at the center of the action.
Stroll into Del Frisco's on a Thursday night ("New Yorkers' night out," they call it), and you will be hit with a barrage of merriment and testosterone. Mega-Scotches, all-meat crab cakes, 26-ounce strip steaks ($52.95 each), and $90 cold-water Australian lobster tails--all topped off with a giant wedge of lemon cake. That Del Frisco's is a chain (owned by Lone Star Steakhouse; ticker: STAR) doesn't seem to bother usually snooty New Yorkers. The three-floor, 16,000-square-foot restaurant is perpetually packed for dinner.
So what about 2006? It might be too much to expect a repeat of 2005, but if oil prices continue to fall (down 4% in one week in mid-November), interest rates stay tame (ten-year bond at 4.5%), companies keep reporting upbeat earnings (like Hewlett-Packard), and mergers keep on popping (e.g., Cisco buys Scientific Atlanta for $6.9 billion), there should be plenty more cash flowing into Manhattan's steakhouses. Where's the beef? Right here, baby. Come and get it!
ANDY SERWER, editor at large of FORTUNE, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read him online in Street Life on fortune.com, and watch him on CNN's American Morning and In the Money.