Wall Street is flipping out today over the news, courtesy of Bloomberg View columnist Barry Ritholtz, that a single financial executive – Bill Gross, the bond-trading legend who left Pimco earlier this year – made a massive $290 million bonus last year. Another former Pimco executive, Mohamed El-Erian, raked it in, too, with a reported $230 million bonus. These numbers (which Pimco is disputing) make even well-paid CEOs jealous, and they should – at $290 million, Gross was paid more than the next 17 highest-paid financial CEOs combined. (For some non-financial context, Robert Downey Jr., the highest paid actor in Hollywood according to Forbes, made only $75 million last year – roughly a quarter of Gross's haul.)
It's almost impossible to make $290 million in one year – especially if that money is in the form of a normal year-end cash bonus. Most times, when you see eye-popping paydays like these, they're the result of a stock sale, a rise in the value of a publicly-traded company, or a one-time freak occurrence like selling your company to Facebook for $19 billion.
Let's assume Gross really did get a $290 million bonus. How did he do it? And how can the rest of us get in on this action?
First, it helps to have a certain kind of job. Gross co-founded a money-management firm, which takes huge pools of capital from lots of people and big institutions and invests them in stuff. His specialty was bonds, but the specific financial product you're dealing in doesn't matter much – what matters is that, as a money manager, you get paid a percentage of every dollar you manage. In Gross's case, he had a terrible year – the Total Return fund he managed actually lost 2 percent – but that didn't matter, because Pimco earns a small management fee (roughly one cent for every two dollars managed) on a huge amount of money. It manages about $2 trillion, which translates into annual revenue of $10 billion or so. Pimco is fairly lean, as companies of that size go – only about 2,400 employees – which means it can afford to pay Gross pretty much whatever it wants.
Second, it helps to work for a specific kind of company – namely, a U.S. subsidiary of a foreign conglomerate that can keep its pay details secret. In the U.S., there are laws requiring disclosure of executive pay, and boards generally don't like to approve pay packages for CEOs that are significantly higher than those of their competitors. (For one thing, it makes them look greedy.) But Gross's company, Pimco, was bought by Allianz, a German financial services company that doesn't have to follow U.S. disclosure rules regarding executive pay, So while the compensation packages of Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, and other American CEOs are only a Google search away, Gross's millions got to remain entirely in the dark.
Third, it helps to be a star. Gross was the best-performing bond fund manager in the world for many years, which gave him massive amounts of leverage with his corporate overlords in Germany. Like LeBron James moving to Cleveland, Gross was able to set the terms of his own deal – which included complete autonomy for his Pimco team and the freedom to, say, write investor letters about his dead cat. (As Ritholtz puts it, "even after the Allianz deal, everyone involved continued to defer to Gross’s financial and managerial judgment.") Combine that level of independence with the fact that Gross's pay package, along with those of his top lieutenants, would remain opaque to Allianz shareholders and the general public, and you get a recipe for some insanely big bonuses.
So the lesson is: if you want to make $290 million next year, land yourself a job as the completely autonomous, fee-skimming star of a foreign conglomerate's profitable U.S. money-management subsidiary. And let the good times roll.