Is this the end of bonus culture?

The punishment, finally, has come.

Finally the punishment has come. After years of banker bashing, public rage and political incredulity, bankers, it seems, are ultimately being hit where it hurts – their bonuses.

The bonus cap, announced on Wednesday, comes not from the UK Government, but the EU, who seemed very pleased with the result: Othmar Karas, the European Parliament’s negotiator said: “For the first time in the history of EU financial market regulation, we will cap bankers’ bonuses”.

But banking is only one half of the story. The excessive bonus culture, inherited from the 80s, has permeated just about every financial trading institution. Hedge funds, those opaque offices of Mayfair that have given us vocabulary like “futures” and “swaps”, are also likely to have their bonuses capped. Other traders could also see regulation: asset managers, investment managers, fund managers; the list goes on. So is this the end of bonus culture?   

Probably not, no. Although financial institutions threaten to go abroad, the list of regulatory-friendly destinations is getting smaller by the day. No, it is much easier just to bypass the rules. The obvious solution is simply to raise salaries – the norm method of gaining more pay before bonuses. An increased salary will also see bigger bonuses as the EU proposed cap is fixed to salaries at a ratio of 1:1 (or 2:1 with shareholder approval).

Long term bonuses-type rewards will also be exempt from the cap. Rather than receiving the usual Christmas bonus, bankers can earn a quarter of their salary through instruments deferred for five years. Other complex structures and financial vehicles will be set up to fall outside EU powers and confound Brussels policy makers. 

Like smoking, financial institutions seem unable to quite their bonuses. Discouraged by Government, banned from public places and shamed by society, bonus baiting goes on.

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.