Business

Diamond Bob's bonus protected by Chinese boom

BBC business editor Robert Peston on bankers' pay

In the UK, one significant economic concern is that banks aren't lending enough to reinforce economic recovery - which is why, as I pointed out last Thursday, the government is negotiating with our biggest banks to persuade them to make new promises to increase lending to small businesses.

In China, they have the opposite problem. Bank lending increased an unsustainable 19.9% in December, according to figures released overnight.

That caps a year in which lending by Chinese banks rose by around a fifth, fuelling inflation in property and in retail prices.

In China the authorities are trying to increase the price of credit and reduce its supply - though not with any great determination as yet.

Those who believe a dangerous bubble is being pumped up there won't be reassured.

Which is why, as the FT points out this morning, it matters that the latest version of the Basel lll agreement on reinforcing the financial strength of banks allows for co-ordinated international action to increase capital ratios of domestic and international banks operating in bubble economies.

In theory, this would stem the supply of credit when overheating is perceived to be a problem. But, as is the way of these things, don't expect to see the new cross-border approach become a reality for many years.

Now the Chinese boom even has an impact on the price of bankers in the UK - in that one reason why Standard Chartered, HSBC and Barclays won't cut what they pay their top people and investment bankers to any significant extent is that they are having to pay more and more to hire and retain in Asia and China.

The only British bank subject to any material interference from the Treasury in respect of the bonuses it is set to pay is Royal Bank of Scotland.

As we speak, the holder of the government's stakes in the banks, UKFI, is negotiating with RBS to make sure that the ratio of what RBS pays its investment bankers to the income of the investment bank is at the bottom end of the ratio for its rivals (though not at the very bottom).

And the government is trying to influence the pay threshold at RBS at which bankers will receive all their bonus in shares or subordinated debt, as opposed to cash.

That said, as I mentioned last week, RBS is still on course to pay not far off £1bn in bonuses for its performance in 2010 - which will stir up controversy, when it happens, because bonuses paid in shares and subordinated debt will still be lovely jubbly for the recipients.

Interestingly, what the Treasury cannot directly determine is the bonus to be received by Stephen Hester, RBS's chief executive - because to do so would be micro-managing to the extent of making RBS's board redundant (and in those circumstances, the chairman and non-executives might well have to quit).

Instead ministers are looking to Mr Hester and RBS's non-execs to show what they would see as common sense, and defer any very substantial rewards for Mr Hester for a year or two - till it becomes clearer whether he has engineered a recovery at the battered bank that would benefit taxpayers as majority owner of RBS.

No such constraints for Mr Hester's most direct rival, Bob Diamond, who has just taken over as chief executive at Barclays - and whose pay package for 2011 is worth up to £11.5m.

As readers of this blog will know, the government has concluded that there is nothing much they can do to influence bonus payments at banks where taxpayers don't have a significant stake - other than appeal to the good offices of the likes of Mr Diamond.

In a minute or two Mr Diamond will be grilled on all this by MPs on the Treasury Select Committee. It's his first public outing as chief executive - and will be the first opportunity for Barclays owners to assess whether he's worth the money.

I will keep you updated.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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