Goldman Sachs' 1MDB problems are eating into employee morale, and insiders worry the firm will use its legal woes as an excuse to scrimp on bonuses

Goldman Sachs' 1MDB problems are eating into employee morale, and insiders worry the firm will use its legal woes as an excuse to scrimp on bonuses



Bonus season is a time of worry at Goldman Sachs.

  • Employees at Goldman Sachs are worried that potential fines from the 1MDB scandal will eat into bonuses.
  • "They'll find any excuse to cut comp," said one trader in equities.
  • Bonuses are a big part of trader compensation - Wall Street bankers make healthy base salaries, but the annual bonus is where the industry's best earn their fortunes.

Goldman Sachs traders are wringing their hands ahead of this year's bonus season, one of the most emotional times on Wall Street.

The sudden prospect of billions of dollars in potential fines from the IMDB Malaysian sovereign wealth fund scandal has some traders worried that the bank has found a useful scapegoat to scrimp on bonuses. Employees will learn about their annual pay numbers next week.

"They'll find any excuse to cut comp," said one trader in equities. Another said the possibility of the 1MDB scandal eating into employee compensation was definitely a worry, though predominantly among the more "pessimistic" at the bank. The traders were based in Goldman's New York and London offices.

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund, or 1MDB, is one of the biggest financial scandals in history and the subject of corruption and money-laundering investigations in at least six countries. Goldman earned roughly $600 million in fees for raising $6.5 billion for the fund. Malaysia has said $2.7 billion of the proceeds of three 1MDB bonds was misappropriated, and is seeking "well in excess" of that amount in fines. The US Department of Justice, among other authorities, is also investigating.


Regarding the 1MDB criminal charges, Goldman has said to Business Insider: "We believe these charges are misdirected, will vigorously defend them and look forward to the opportunity to present our case. The firm continues to cooperate with all authorities investigating these matters."

1MDB has dominated the Goldman headlines in the last few months. In November, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment and guilty plea by the banker at the center of the scandal, ex-Goldman partner Tim Leissner. That alerted insiders to the scale of the potential problem and spooked investors. Goldman's price has declined 26% percent since then.

Read more: The bizarre story of 1MDB, the Goldman Sachs-backed Malaysian fund that turned into one of the biggest scandals in financial history

While 1MDB has hurt morale, according to insiders, the slumping stock price hasn't, according to Gregg Lemkau, co-head of Goldman's investment banking division. Lemkau told CNBC in a December interview that he didn't think the share price was affecting employee satisfaction, and even tried to put a positive spin on it.

"If you want to look at it as a glass half full, we'll just get more shares in terms of compensation at the end of the year," he said. Goldman partners famously made more than $3 billion on options granted in the depths of the financial crisis that later paid out when the stock price soared.


Something similar could happen again, as long as comp dollars aren't shunted into the firm's legal reserves as insiders fear. Analysts have said Goldman may have to set aside $500 million to $1 billion or more for legal reserves in the next few quarters to prepare for the possibility of fines.

A representative for Goldman Sachs declined to comment on the bonuses.

The bank does not disclose its total reserves. Through the first nine months, it set aside $328 million for litigation and regulatory proceedings, an increase of 83% from the prior year and still well short of its expected liability. Accounting rules require firms to set aside reserves for litigation only when it's got a clear line of sight to eventual fines or payments.

Fines wouldn't be the only factor in determining bonuses, of course. Just how much Goldman employees might bring home also depends on the firm's performance - equities trading revenue rose 15% through the first nine months of 2018 compared to the prior year, while revenue from fixed-income trading surged 18%. The fourth quarter was a tough one on Wall Street amid an uptick in volatility.

The worst-case scenario would be the dreaded "doughnut," or zero bonus, though it's unlikely that Goldman execs would blame the entirety of such a meager payout on the Malaysia scandal.


The bank already earmarked $10.7 billion for paying compensation and benefits through the first nine months of 2018, a 10% increase over the prior year. Total revenue is up 16% during the same time period.

Goldman executives will begin communicating figures for year-end bonuses and the reasoning behind the figures to partners on January 16 - the same day it reports earnings - and a day later to non-partners.

Get the latest Goldman Sachs stock price here.