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 . . .

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.