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

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.