Stephen Hester's magical misdirection: defending RBS's £5bn losses and £679m bonuses

RBS has announced losses of over £5.1bn and bonuses of £679m, after being bailed out by the taxpayer. Through Stephen Hester's sleight of hand, we are expected to believe that this has been a “chastening year” for the bank.

There is one essential ingredient to almost every magic trick: misdirection. Dangle something with your left hand, while your right pulls all manner of rabbits, bouquets, bonuses and silk handkerchiefs out of a top hat. Stephen Hester used it truly magnificently today, when he announced that RBS had posted losses of over £5.1bn, while doling out bonuses of £679m. This bonus pool is certainly not the “far lower” figure Treasury minister Danny Alexander had in mind, with commentators having predicted last month that it would be in the region of £250m.

Fret not, however. This figure is very modest, indeed the result of a “chastening year”, Hester argues, in an act that would leave Penn and Teller shaking their heads with bafflement. Modest compared to what? At which question, Hester starts pulling a number of shiny coins from behind our ears.

This figure is very modest, we are told, compared to the bonuses Barclays are expected to announce. Hang on, Stephen. Barclays is a privately owned company which has turned profit for the last couple of years. Your bonuses come directly from the money all of us stumped up to bail RBS out. What else have you got?

Oh, sorry, this figure is modest – punitive even – when you take into account that it has been reduced in order to recoup Libor-related fines to the tune of £300m. One momentito, if you please, Stev-o. Is what you are telling us, essentially, that if we compare it to an even higher and totally fictional figure, the actual figure is lower? Anything else?

This figure is modest when you compare it to last year’s figure of £800m. Sorry to interrupt again, but if one adds the £300m Libor fines, by which you claim to have reduced the bonus pool with the very specific purpose of penalising traders for manipulating the rate, then it would have been bigger than last year’s. Add to that the fact that you have engaged in a programme of redundancy of tens of thousands of employees – reducing the staff in the investment arm alone by roughly a quarter – and this must represent a real increase. Or am I missing something?

It seems that I am. The missing piece of the puzzle, as articulated by Hester, is that RBS needs to remain competitive by offering performance-related bonuses, in order to attract the best people. This includes a very competitive £2m paid to Hester himself. This view was fully endorsed by our beloved Prime Minister only today in a European context, in which, disgracefully in my view, he is gearing up to resist a move to cap bankers’ bonuses at EU level to 100 per cent of their salary or 200 per cent of their salary with board approval.

This is where reality and rhetoric disconnect – the latter flying off Hester’s outstretched finger, like a white dove. Which group of people – other than those working in the highest echelons of the financial sector – would view doubling or tripling their annual salary, after performing so exceptionally badly that the company lost over £5bn, as a snub?

This is the fundamental proposition which all this misdirection attempts flamboyantly and flagrantly to hide. At a time when millions are being made redundant all across Europe and unemployment rates hit record highs, at a time when everyone else’s salaries are being frozen or reduced in real terms (including lowly RBS staff), at a time when RBS itself, like most other banks, is laying off thousands of employees specifically from its investment banking arm – we are asked to believe that, at this time, investment banking is the only industry which is not an employer’s market.

And now turn your attention to what the other hand is doing: people being forced to work for nothing in order to maintain their basic benefits. Public servants – including the people who heal you when you are sick, protect you when you are threatened and teach your children – being told to do more with less. Tax credits vanishing for ordinary families. Benefits being capped for those being exploited by landlords. Drawn curtains. Closed blinds. Strivers and shirkers.

Contrast those two attitudes and a further policy assumption emerges. It is at the heart of everything this government is doing. While the poor can only be bullied into productivity by the threat of more poverty, the rich can only be coaxed into it by the promise of more wealth.

Perhaps we might hope for a shareholder revolt, similar to those recently observed in other large companies. Only,the one powerful shareholder in this case is the government and they have made their position clear on many occasions: it is time to stop with this banker-bashing and let the crème de la crème get on with the difficult work of losing billions and leading us into the next phase of this crisis, unfettered by regulation, decency, logic or morality.

Take a bow, Stephen Hester. Next stop, Las Vegas.

Protesters outside Royal Bank of Scotland HQ in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Alison McGovern
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Forget universal basic income - this is how we can include voters in economic growth

The links between economic growth of the country and that of the people, families and towns have broken. The state can fix them again. 

Economic policy is always boring, until it’s too late.

Pensions. How they are funded, who they cover, what happens if they fail. Boring. Until it was too late.

Mortgages. Who has them, who needs one, who should have one. Boring. Until it was too late.

Finance. Capital markets, their products, their structure, their risk profile. Boring. Until it was too late.

You see the point I’m making. It’s easy to look away from numbers. The data doesn’t necessarily tell us an obvious story. And then one day, a catalyst sparks an unforeseen, if, with hindsight, predictable event, and we all wonder why we didn’t see it coming.

Something similar happened with the Brexit vote. Of course, it was a perfect political storm: an overconfident Prime Minister calls a referendum that he only needs to have to pay off his right flank, safe in the knowledge that the mainstream voters and the leadership of the Labour party will carry him through. Except he forgets that there is someone more despised than even his right flank - him. 

But beneath all of that, the Brexit vote revealed a divided country. Between those who felt that Britain as it was before the referendum offered them a decent enough – if imperfect - future, and those who felt it offered them nothing of the sort. 

Could we have seen it coming? Perhaps we could. Take two graphs.

Real wages are still, today, on average below what they were in 2008, nearly a decade ago. At the point of the referendum, average wages were yet to return to the level they hit eight years earlier. The difference between real and nominal wages is inflation. People have watched prices steadily drift up while their wages have remained stubbornly flat. Not an overnight shock, but a long drawn out crisis all the same.

Vast numbers of pensioners (over 60 per cent of them) voted to leave the European Union, and pensioners incomes have not seen the same fall as incomes for the working age population (in fact they rose by 19 per cent in real terms in the last 10 years). But it is important not to overinterpret the data with hindsight. After all, there are nearly 32m British people of working age. That surely should have been enough to carry the vote, had far too many people had so little reason to back the status quo.

In the years running up to the crucial Brexit vote, the economy was, by and large, moving ahead. But in the case of the most crucial, most noticeable, economic transfer - a person’s wages - the economy was not moving ahead at all. In fact between the crash and the 2015 general election, wages largely only fell, and since then, pay has struggled to make up ground, against a picture of an otherwise ‘growing’ economy.

Worst of all - nearly 4m households in measurable (and therefore known) poverty include someone at work. Of the 17m Brexit voters, some were wealthy retired voters who always hated Brussels. But how many more simply had too little to lose, and couldn’t stand David Cameron?

The problem with all this though, and the reason we didn’t see it coming, is that no one’s life is a graph. I mean, we are all data points. But no one feels like a data point. And people are notoriously bad at providing logical, graph-like, mathematical reasons for their political judgements. "My individual wages have failed to keep pace with growth in the economy at large," said no person on no doorstep, ever. Unhappiness with what is on offer manifests itself in lots of different ways but it isn’t likely to be an analysis of the macro-economy.

We all know of course that people are much more likely to connect with politics (and politicians) emotionally. That is how we make our choices. But our emotions are informed by the facts of our life and are responses to the facts we see. So, whilst the graphs above cannot tell us all we need to know about why Remain lost, they do tell us about some facts likely to impact on the choices we make.

The challenge is to work out how we can change the trends shown on the graph, and how this in turn will affect those who lost out over the past decade. What can be done to repair the link between economic growth and economic growth for all?

This challenge is to create "inclusive growth". Or as I think of it, making sure there is a hard chain which links growth in the economy overall to the growth of wages and incomes of the many. When the country rises, so must all within it.

The hard links in the chain are what should have kept our country together. They are the rules that should have meant that the British economy doing better meant individuals, families, towns, cities all doing better too. You can see from the graphs above that the rules worked between 1997 and about 2005. Our country grew, and we all grew in capacity with it. But then the model stopped working. And 11 years later people were asked to vote for the status quo, even though the status quo was clearly failing the many.

We will never be able to see the trends until it is too late. We need rules that shape our markets, including the labour market, to achieve an outcome that people can see and feel in their pockets. Analysis of the past is only any good if it can help shape the future. 

It’s not enough to say that somehow our economy is rigged against people, as if this was one great fiddle. Rather, we should remember that policy choices have consequences. 

Now some people suggest that the correct response to falling wages, and precarious work, is some sort of universal benefit, or citizens’ income. But recent Fabian Society research demonstrated that the vast majority of people – about 80 per cent - feel positive about their work even despite the story told here about wages. So even if it were practical for government to raise taxes in order to transfer something in the region of the state pension to every person in our country, it hardly seems like it would be popular. 

If people, in general terms, actually like their work, the problem is then making sure they get paid enough and get promotions. It means recognising what the past decade has taught us: that the growth of the economy must mean economic growth for all within the economy, or else there will be consequences.

So, the question remains: what are the hard links in the chain between the economic growth of the country as a whole, and economic growth of the people, families and towns within it?

Unfortunately, this is where the boring stuff still matters. You can get paid more if you have better prospects. That means a buoyant labour market, and the skills to participate in it.

Now the government say that they are addressing the challenges in our economy by investing in infrastructure, through an industrial strategy. And along with buzzy new ideas like universal basic income (where citizens are guaranteed a certain income), everyone in politics loves announcing campaigns for new railway lines (me included). Trains are big, fast, expensive and showy. But travelling to work by train tends to be the preserve of those who already have a high-skilled job and are commuting some distance. We should worry a little more about those who get the bus to work.

Then take those who work in low-pay sectors like care, retail, hospitality, or construction. Each sector has its own challenges, but one thing that unites of all these sectors is the likelihood of people working in them to be working below their potential skill level. Hopefully our new metro mayors will be able to provide better education opportunities for those at or near the minimum wage. But what about in those areas without mayors? Do they fall even further behind? Skills transfers matter much more for future growth than a massive financial transfer like universal basic income.

And in case anyone should think that I have forgotten, with less than 15 per cent of people in the private sector represented by a trade union, it is little wonder that workers have insufficient power to command better wages. Our labour market leaves too many people on their own, without the strength of collective bargaining to get them a good deal.

Universal basic income fails for another crucial reason. It would fail for the same reason that tax credits were economically effective but open to political challenge. For most people, the part of government, of the state, that they wish to defend are the things they can see, they can touch, emotionally engage with. The hospital their child was born in, that cared for a sick parent, the school they went to, the park they played in with their grandchild. They prefer to earn their wages, and do a job they enjoy. Transfer payments from the state are always harder to defend, as the history books attest. 

So for me, truly inclusive growth means making the most of the institutions we already have – colleges of further education for example – and building new ones like universal quality childcare. Many members of our workforce are prevented from returning to work after the birth of a child, simply because of the cost of childcare. Universal free childcare would allow many more women to go back to work or have the time to gain more skills, should they want to. Moreover, good quality childcare would benefit all of our children by narrowing the attainment gap. These hard links in the chain - the links that ensure that growth in Britain involves economic growth of all of those people and places within it - are, in fact, the institutions of the state. 

These are the platforms Labour governments have built for ordinary people to stand on. But these are the very institutions under attack from current government policy. If we’re going to rebuild the chain, then the government must change tack. We need to develop new ideas and solutions and the all-party parliamentary group on inclusive growth can be a place to bring people together across the party divide. Theresa May has spoken about an economy that works for all. Now’s the time to protect the institutions that can deliver that economy and inclusive growth, before it is too late.

The APPG on Inclusive Growth's 'State of the Debate' event with the OECD, World Economic Forum, RSA and IPPR is on Tuesday 21st February at 6.30pm at Parliament. See www.inclusivegrowth.co.uk for full details.

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.