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Labour bets on bashing bankers

Robert Peston | 09:47 UK time, Monday, 28 September 2009

The chancellor and the prime minister are certainly not lowering the temperature of their attack on banks' bonuses.

Alistair Darling and Gordon BrownWhich, I suppose, is significant - even if there's nothing new of substance that they've announced in the past 24 hours or are likely to do in the next 24 hours (see my note of yesterday).

Let's be clear: British banks have already changed their bonus practices fairly significantly over the course of this year, largely due to pressure from regulator, ministers and public opinion.

In particular, for senior bankers, cash bonuses paid at the end of the year and available immediately to snap up the bright yellow Lambo, well they're a beautiful memory.

These days so-called variable compensation typically cannot be pocketed in the year that it is earned. Distribution of readies is deferred and subject to so-called claw-back, linked to the future profitability of relevant deals and the bank as a whole.

But don't cry for the bankers. They can still earn in a year more than many earn in a lifetime, even if they have to hang around for a bit to bank it.

Which remains something of a sore point for millions of taxpayers, who are more-or-less aware that almost no bank would be standing today if it weren't for the £1.3 trillion of support given to them by the state in the form of special loans, investment, guarantees and the creation of new money.

And the bits of their banks that are doing so well this year, the investment banking bits, are profiting from the frantic scramble by governments and companies to mend their finances - which in a way is to say that they are making hay from the resolution of an economic and financial crisis after having made a very special contribution to the creation of that crisis.

If this is an example of modern distributive justice, some would say that Genghis Khan was a caring, sharing leader.

So who can be surprised that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling want to tap into a national sense of outrage by creating the impression that the banks haven't yet gone far enough in reining in pay?

But what more do they actually want from the City?

Presumably what they would like is to see a serious reduction in the amount bankers are actually paid in this first year after the debacle of last autumn.

So the question, I suppose, is how responsive the banks will be to what's known as moral suasion - or pressure from the chancellor for them to voluntarily slash bonus payments this year.

Alistair Darling will have more of a sense of this later this week, when he's meeting the chairmen of the banks' remuneration committees.

Here's a funny thing. At least one of your biggest banks is actually quite relieved by the bonus-bashing: Royal Bank of Scotland.

It and Lloyds - as the banks most conspicuously rescued by taxpayers - are more constrained then most in their ability to pay bonuses.

And the constraints on them will become more severe, because they are perceived by the regulator, the Financial Services Authority, to be short of capital (the buffer against potential losses).

Which is why they are being forced to insure their loans against future losses with taxpayers through the Government Asset Protection Scheme (GAPS) and/or raise additional capital from investors.

They are therefore most in the firing line to have a limit placed on the respective pools of money they can set aside for deployment in the form of bonuses, according to the stipulation made on Friday night by G20 leaders Pittsburgh (again, for more detail on this, see yesterday's note).

This is more of a worry for Royal Bank than for Lloyds, because it is bigger in the bonus-paying businesses of investment banking.

So if only the chancellor can shame Barclays and the other big banks not to use the lure of fabulous bonuses as a recruitment tool, Royal Bank will find it so much easier to attract and retain all those invaluable traders and financial engineers (which, I suppose, warms the cockles of all us, as de facto owners of this bank).

In a curious way, Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown are doing a favour for the bank owned by taxpayers, Royal Bank of Scotland, by endeavouring to kill the bonus culture everywhere.

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