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

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit