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Bank bonuses and the Barclays myth

We, the taxpayers, saved Barclays too!

From the BBC:

Banking giant Barclays has seen its full-year profits increase by 92 per cent to £11.6bn ($18.2bn) in 2009.

The news story goes on to add:

The bank, which did not take any direct state help during the financial crisis, said its total bonus payouts for staff had been reined in to £2.7bn.

First, the fact that multibillion-pound bonuses in the midst of a recession are described as having been "reined in" says all you need to know about the excess and greed that has blighted the banking sector in recent years.

Second, notice the key disclaimer slipped in, early on:

The bank, which did not take any direct state help during the financial crisis . . .

I've heard a version of this line again and again, in the context of Barclays, ever since the government's bailout of the banks in late 2008. Last night on LBC, for example, the business reporter went out of her way to remind listeners that Barclays hadn't taken any government money -- in other words, it is less culpable for the crash and less accountable to the public for what it does with its profits now.

What a load of rubbish.

Barclays, as the Beeb's business editor Robert Peston points out later on, in the same story, benefited indirectly:

. . . from a windfall generated by the emergency rescue of the global economy undertaken by governments and central banks, an emergency rescue that was needed in large part because of the havoc wreaked by the excessive risk-taking of banks.

The banking sector, which Barclays is part of, would not exist today were it not for the billions stumped up by British taxpayers in the form of bailout money, short-term loans, loan guarantees and quantitative easing. Even the Barclays boss, John Varley, has acknowledged the crucial role played by the government in rescuing the City as a whole:

There are two ways I would say the system as a whole benefited generically.

One was in the injection of liquidity undertaken by the Bank of England and a new structure put in place in March 2008.

And the other was the making available of guarantees from government for funding undertaken by banks.

It is important to recognise that in each case the banks were encouraged to use these new structures that were put in place and we did.

It is also important to recognise that we were required and we did pay a price for these things but I'm not trivialising the importance of the intervention. It was important.

So Barclays has to behave responsibly. Massive bonuses are unjustified, irresponsible, offensive and dangerous.

Let's not forget either that Barclays only avoided crashing like Royal Bank of Scotland through good fortune: had the former succeeded in buying the debt-ridden ABN Amro in 2007, instead of the latter, Varley might be as reviled and ridiculed today as Fred "the Shred" Goodwin. What a lucky man . . .