Goldman profits soar on lower pay

By David Ellis, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- Goldman Sachs delivered some of its best results in the firm's history on Thursday, after it drastically reined in pay for thousands of employees.

Hoping to defuse a potential backlash over year-end bonuses, the Wall Street powerhouse said it trimmed its compensation pool to $16.2 billion during the quarter.

That helped boost its fourth-quarter results to $4.9 billion, or $8.20 a share, eclipsing analysts' estimates for a profit of $5.20 a share, according to Thomson Reuters. Profits for 2009 also soared, hitting a new record of $13.4 billion.

Robust activity in Goldman's massive trading division earlier in the year helped juice the firm's full-year results, even as trading dramatically slowed down in the final months of the year.

And while revenue within Goldman's traditional investment banking and asset management businesses fell from a year ago, that decline was easily offset by the reduction in employee expenses.

Money spent on salaries, benefits and bonuses in 2009 ended at 38.5% of the firm's total revenue, the lowest level for that ratio since the firm went public in 1999.

David Viniar, Goldman Sachs' chief financial officer, indicated that the move was done largely in response to the recent outcry about compensation from the American public, who helped prop up the firm with taxpayer dollars a little more than a year ago.

There has certainly been much frustration on Capitol Hill as well, with politicians incredulous that financial firms like Goldman Sachs would dare pay outsized bonuses, particularly at a time when millions remain out of work.

"We are not deaf to the calls for restraint and we heard them," Viniar said during a conference call with the media.

Hoping to defuse a potential backlash, the company has taken aggressive action on several fronts in recent months. In December it revoked cash bonuses for its 30-member management committee, as well as contributing $620 million to two charitable organizations the firm oversees.

Viniar said Thursday that the company even went so far as to consult Kenneth Feinberg, the Obama administration's so-called "pay czar" who was tasked with reining in runaway pay plans at U.S. companies that have been bailed out more than once. Goldman Sachs was not one of those seven companies that fell under his authority.

Still, employees at the Wall Street giant will hardly go home empty handed.

Money spent on salaries and bonuses by Goldman were still up nearly 50% from a year ago.

Were that pool of cash divided evenly among Goldman's 32,500 employees, that would come to about $498,461 a person. In 2007, before the crisis hit, pay for the average Goldmanite came out to $661,400.

While the issue of compensation took center stage, the company also found it hard to escape questions about the potential impact of President Obama's proposal to limit the size of U.S. financial institutions.

The new measure, which was also unveiled Thursday morning, would prohibit commercial banks from engaging in trading for their own gain as well as prohibiting banks from owning or investing in hedge funds.

As a company that dabbles in both, Goldman would arguably become subject to such rules. Viniar said it was too early to comment on the proposal, but said these two areas made up just a small portion of the firm's overall revenues.

Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500) shares tumbled more than 5% in mid-afternoon trading Thursday, despite starting the session higher.

Thursday's results from Goldman Sachs punctuate what has been a mixed bag of earnings reports from the nation's top financial firms.

Rival Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500) managed to reverse its losses from a year ago, the company revealed Wednesday, although its results fell short of consensus estimates.

Morgan Stanley also reported a big jump in compensation expenses, but much of that was due to an increase in staff tied to a joint venture with Citigroup.

Both Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) each reported steep losses earlier this week. And while JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) posted a better-than expected profit last Friday, investors were concerned by cautious comments from CEO Jamie Dimon. To top of page

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