A misguided cap on Bankers’ bonuses

Alexander Pannett 3.30pm

And so they are marching again. The restless European Parliament is finally getting its revenge against the unscrupulous “Anglo-Saxon” capitalists in London. It has voted to reign in bankers’ bonuses, reducing permitted amounts to the base salary of bankers.

The rules would apply to Europe-based employees of any bank, as well as to staff of European banks wherever they are located. That means a Barclays trader working in New York would be subject to the cap, as would a Goldman Sachs banker based in London.

I am sceptical of the bonus cap’s effectiveness. The reduction of bonuses will mean that remuneration will be granted in the form of higher salaries.  This adds inflexible costs to financial institutions which, in a crisis, will have to reduce head-count rather than being able to cancel bonuses in order to preserve capital levels. It will lead to the increased use of temporary contracts as banks seek to maintain flexibility.

Increased salaries, rather than bonuses, also moves the City away from performance related pay. Bankers will receive salaries despite the poor risks and mistakes they make. Failure will be rewarded. This is also unnecessary as recent claw-back regulations have been introduced which are designed to ensure remuneration is performance linked. Bankers whose trades made losses in the long-term would see their bonuses reclaimed, which incentivises bankers to consider long-term risks. Higher salaries do not ensure that bankers mitigate risks.

I also have an intrinsic revulsion at politicians who interfere with business for political or even emotive reasons. Do these politicians understand or even care about the effect that these changes will have on London’s financial services, which is a considerable European strategic asset? I suspect they do not.

Despite my above concerns, we must not ignore the considerable antipathy that the British public holds for the financial sector. It is almost satirical that RBS, which was saved with taxpayer’s money, has posted 2012 losses of more than £5 billion whilst paying out £600 million in bonuses last year. This European cap on bonuses may be mis-guided but that does not mean the City now smells of roses.

A reform of the bonus culture may indeed be needed, such as substituting locked-in equity for current bonus structures or changing the criteria for awarding bonuses so that they are more strongly linked to the overall performance of a financial institution. However, this European cap on bonuses is not helpful and will be counter-productive as it harms the international competitiveness of one of Europe’s few remaining engines of economic growth. The prime minister is right to resist.

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