Following a ruling yesterday by a New York state judge, Merrill Lynch will probably be obliged to make public the names of the 200 of its staff who received the highest bonuses last year.
Needless to say, Merrill didn’t choose this. Bank of America argued strongly that grave and irreparable harm would ensue if the names became public.
With some staff at AIG allegedly receiving death threats over the level of bonuses they received, there may be negative security implications to publicizing Merrill names.
However, there are few other good reasons to maintain secrecy on bonus levels.
At department store John Lewis, which is emerging as a paragon among bonus payers, (admittedly much smaller) bonuses are public knowledge. Everyone receives a fixed portion of their salary. And everyone has a good idea what each other got.
Bringing bonus transparency to banks would do wonders for both the probity of compensation systems and for the culture.
If everyone knew what the person next to them were paid there would be greater emphasis on paying fairly on a risk-adjusted basis. There would also be less in the way of posturing among individuals determined to create the impression that their smallish bonus was actually large.
When it comes to bonuses, compulsory transparency may be the one thing lawmakers could be usefully impose. The New York state judge may not know it, but he’s onto something.