The word bonus can mean different things to different people. If you were to randomly stop someone in the street and ask them what it meant to them you’d probably get a response along the lines of the following:
“Something extra that’s nice.”
“An amount or sum given in addition to what I expected.”
“An additional prize, award or bit of cash. Expected or unexpected.”
Fair enough. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a bonus. But we’re not interested in generic, blanket definitions. We’re talking finance here. More importantly, the investment banking side of finance.
To an ibanker, therefore, those above-mentioned answers are dishearteningly superficial. They are the words of one who knows nothing about the long, painful journey of the ibanker.
Alas, living a world that very few understand is part of the ibanker’s burden in his quest for glory and riches.
The most powerful things are difficult to define
From my years in banking I’ve come to know a large number ibankers. Women and men from different countries of the world, emerging and developed alike. From children of European banking dynasties and Chinese real estate magnates to first-in-the-family-with-a-university-degree Americans, Indians and Norwegians with boundless ambition and energy. Thin, tall, fat, short, I saw them in all shades and colors. And despite their personal idiosyncrasies and individual backgrounds none could ever give you a straight answer if you asked them ‘what is a bonus’?
How could some of the sharpest minds on earth stall when asked a straightforward four-word question? Let me emphasise, they included former debate club leaders, chess masters, straight A students (since birth), mental calculators, standardized test aces and even members of rhetorical societies. It didn’t matter. The question would arrest them.
One of the underlying reasons was that only they, that special breed of financiers, felt the overwhelming surge of emotions which came from this highly charged word. They are alone in that respect.
Just a day?
One thing was certain, on bonus day it didn’t matter where you came from or who you had slept with the night before. It didn’t matter if you had a receding hairline like Jude Law or a full set of hair like Brad Pitt. If you were the type of person who enjoyed flirty Persian dancing or sitting home to watch another Salman Khan Bollywood action film. Whether you pursed your lips with excitement when someone took a photo of you or hated being photographed so much that you daydreamed of breaking the photographers index finger in half. On bonus day everyone was one thing and one thing only. An individual facing the day or reckoning. The rest was irrelevant.
To the outsider the bonus was but an envelope which contained a large number detailing how much money the recipient banker would shortly receive in his or her bank account. That isn’t entirely wrong yet that would be like focusing on the color of the ballot the cardinals use to vote on the next Pope rather than seeing what the process truly signifies for the church, the Christian world and all of its followers.
The bonus was the grand finale in the great theatre play of investment banking. Every thing which has made up the preceding, tumultuous year can only be truly defined when set against the contents of that fine, oh very fine, envelope.
You didn’t just open it. You first smell it, very slowly, allowing the olfactory sense to take you all the way back to what used to be that fine tall tree situated in a breathtaking forest in Norway where the paper can trace back its humble roots. Only after did the ritual continue.
It was not uncommon for a banker’s eyes to well up after you asked them what a bonus meant to them. The very word could elicit forgotten emotions which date as far back as that moment he or she emerged from the womb many years ago. Such was the evocative nature of the word.