NEW YORK — On Wall Street, profits are down and the number of workers is shrinking.
But bonuses continue to swell.
Those payouts to Wall Street employees rose 15 percent on average last year, to $164,530, according to estimates released on Wednesday by Thomas DiNapoli, the state comptroller. That was the biggest average bonus since 2007, the year before the financial crisis struck.
Overall, workers in the securities industry in New York City made $26.7 billion in bonuses last year. The bonus figures encompass everyone from the low-ranking employee to the chief executive, so high payouts to top managers can bring up the average.
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That bonuses rose during a challenging environment for the banks reflects a cardinal rule of Wall Street: Firms are willing to pay big for top producers. This held true even as profits overall fell 30 percent to $16.7 billion, according to the comptroller’s report.
The total included payments that had been granted in previous years. That was because Wall Street firms, since the crisis, have sought to keep a temporary lid on costs by deferring a portion of cash compensation. Some of this cash that had been withheld was paid out last year, making bonuses larger than they otherwise might be.
While Wall Street bonuses have raised eyebrows in Washington, D.C., in recent years, they are an important ingredient in the industry’s pay, often making up the bulk of a workers’ earnings.
The number of jobs in finance declined slightly last year, as firms sought to keep costs in check. The industry employed 165,200 people as of last December, a decline of 1.2 percent from 2012 and the second straight year of declines.
Wall Street compensation continues to dwarf the pay in other industries. The Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal-leaning research group, said Wednesday that the $26.7 billion in bonuses would be enough to more than double the pay of the 1.1 million full-time minimum wage workers in the United States.
At big firms like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, compensation measured as a percentage of net revenue has been going down. Goldman, which in the third quarter cut the amount of money it set aside for compensation, reported a compensation ratio of 36.9 percent for 2013, the lowest level since 2009.
And yet, Wall Street continues to face challenges, even with the increase in bonuses. After past economic downturns, the securities industry “is what led us out of a tough economic time,” DiNapoli said.
“That has not been the case with our current recovery,” he said.