Wasserstein's death marks end of era... or does it?

Wall Street may have lost a legend, but the age of the big bonus is not dead yet.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Lazard boss Bruce Wasserstein passed away last night after being taken to hospital with an irregular heartbeat. It leaves Wall Street mourning the loss of a banking legend: Bid 'em up Bruce was the man behind such colossal deals as KKR's $31.4bn hostile takeover of RJR Nabisco, which was immortalised in the book Barbarians at the Gate, and Kraft's recent bid for Cadbury - a move that bore all the audacious hallmarks of a classic Wasser. Just don't mention the flapping turkey that was the AOL-Time Warner marriage.

It makes for a curious time for a legend to leave us - after a three-decade career on Wall Street, in which Wasserstein became the figurehead of the hard-hitting, high-flying '80s and made deals worth more than $250bn, he played out the final act of his career in a banking world that had taken such a battering it must have seemed like another planet.  

Just take a look at this week. Two Bear Stearns hedge fund managers have become the first Wall Street bankers to stand trial in a criminal case resulting from the credit crunch - accused of orchestrating a $1.6bn fraud in a bid to shore up their coffers as their funds fell to pieces. Meanwhile the American banking world is currently anticipating the hundredth failure of a high-street bank since the beginning of the year, as its financial institutions continue to wallow in the fallout from bad loans and delinquent mortgages.

Wasserstein is used to more bullish times. He's the man who earned his Bid 'em up nickname by convincing bidders to pay more for their prey, as well as pioneering the Pacman defence - in which the target for a bid performs a volte-face and winds up buying its bidder.

Wasserstein may have left the building believing that such times were far behind us. Take the idea that the ailing banks had turned their backs on astronomical bonuses in order to placate the governments who are now feeding them handouts. If only he'd held on a bit longer. JP Morgan Chase has led what may be a flood of controversial bonus announcements by revealing it has set aside $7.3bn in Q3 to pay staff. That takes the total pot for the year so far to $21bn - 23% up on last year. Meanwhile Goldman Sachs' bonus fund is expected to reach around $22bn.

It seems some things never change. But there is one difference: modern banks have to be crafty when they dish out the dosh to ensure they comply with fiddly things like G20 bonus principles. It's like PacMan running around trying to evade an army of officious ghosts while he gobbles up his pills. Wasserstein won't miss that.

 

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