Getting Less Screwed On Compensation

I’ve talked about compensation deals in the past.

For example, one of the tweets in this thread:

Anyone that has ever worked in derivs or at a mm knows what a beast comp negotiation can be. There’s a trader on both sides of the table. Both sides are pricing calls and puts, netting risks, and trying to find structures that work for both sides’ risk preferences.

In On #Voltwit Melees I wrote:

If you really want to examine incentives, think about the PMs at the fund. The non-equity owners want maximum vol since their downside is just losing their job, but their upside is a percent of their performance. Their equity-owning counterparts want the assets to stick. Notice how the non-equity-owning PM has the same incentive as the LP, not the GP.

Comp structures, just like fee structures, are about shifting incentives to create alignment. But there’s a lot of haggling under the hood that looks an awful lot like options trading. When you negotiate comp, do you ever wonder who the patsy is? Or do you think you are in the ballpark of fair value AFTER considering all the levers/scenarios?

Recently, a friend reached out for advice about a specific type of situation. I see a concern that is worth sharing more widely. A bit of background first:

The friend is a senior employee. They are not too concerned about the downside of the new opportunity they are looking at (meaning if they just earned their salary and no bonus they could tolerate that outcome…salaries tend to be a small percentage of total comp for senior employees). The friend is really interested in the opportunity for the upside so, in trader parlance, the friend wants maximum call exposure and doesn’t value the put (ie a minimum guaranteed bonus) much. I have found that employers can be flexible on these structures. If you are risk-averse they are willing to give higher minimum bonuses but take your upside. Of course, on the trading or fund management side, employees are usually in it for the big payoff so do not choose this option, especially if they have savings and can survive on their salary alone if needed.

The major points to be aware of:

  • This friend wants max upside and is not concerned about the downside of the opportunity they are considering. In fact, the friend would be taking a substantial paycut for the shot to have large exposure to the new gig’s success.

  • The nature of the gig is the friend would be launching a fund that had an AUM fee but no performance fee (it’s not a hedge fund) and the fund would be closer to systematic than discretionary.

  • The friend is focused on how to ensure they are aligned with the employer in the case that the venture succeeds.

That’s going to be tricky. Can you anticipate my warning?

Here’s what I told my friend:

You are willing to accept a large carrot on the back end to take risk on the front end. The prospective employer agrees in principle to that arrangement. If possible, the gold standard of alignment will be tying your stock awards to a trail of your efforts in the building of the new product.

The correct appearance of the trail is that it should look overly generous to you in the event that it “hits”. Remember, you took a paycut and a risk upfront. The real-time value of that trail cannot simply be weighed against your real-time efforts since the trail is a lagging indicator of your work.

You are being very clear that your situation allows you to take a risk but it’s critical that you get paid off if things work out. There is always a form of “credit risk” when structuring a deal like this in the sense that at many winning positive scenarios, on a forward-looking basis, it will always look like the right play for the employer to cut you. You are addressing this ahead of time, and want the employer to assure against the incentives it will have AFTER you have borne the bulk of the risk.

What safeguards are in place to “remember how this deal was supposed to work”?

At every review, owners can exercise the option to screw you. Insuring against that is pretty difficult. A big difference between startups and fund management is that early startup employees own true equity. This reality is harshest when things go well. I suspect some market-making firms (they are not funds but the analogy holds) could have paid every employee millions of dollars last year and still had record profits. But they didn’t. People were paid well but found out they had zero delta to the upside at some threshold.

I’m sympathetic to their employer as well. If you paid everyone what they “deserved” many would have quit having hit their FU number. And if you don’t, sure some might rage-quit, but there’s not some other employer willing to pay them more based on some outlier year. Most likely, the owners will admit to themselves, that ownership has its privileges and they are the risk-takers. An unhappy employee is free to start their own business. In fact, that’s who entrepreneurs often are…people with chips on their shoulders.

Ownership is the only true call option. Not shadow equity, where you are promised a percentage of the p/l. That’s not a stake that you can cash out to partners.

If you are in the game for upside, be careful about who writes your checks.

(Option traders know the warning well. Bonus season, despite its moniker, rarely feels like bonus-y fun. Reviews are mostly endurance tests in which you restrain yourself from flipping a desk as you read a disappointing number off a page, several times until it finally registers that it’s what was indeed intended, all the while a superior gaslights you about how good a job you did. The canyon between words and actions so wide, you might even look around to see if there’s someone else in the room. But no. They are actually talking to you.

Market-making firms are generally run by ruthless Ayn Rand worshippers. Whether they converge to this mindset as a post-hoc rationalization for their role in doing “god’s work” or start with it likely varies. I suspect it takes a certain type of person to get to the top of that profession. That person will be good at rationalizing and see wealth as evidence of being right. It’s all quite convenient.)

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