Bankers' pay is high because there's too much money in the finance sector

The EU's attempt to cap banker's bonuses trundles on. But it's misdirected, writes Alex Hern.

As predicted, George Osborne made a last-ditch attempt yesterday to prevent the EU's cap on banker's bonuses being institutedtelling the convention of finance ministers that he "cannot support the proposal on the table". Despite the suggestion from Germany of a minor tweak to the proposals, apparently to give Osborne the chance to claim he'd won concessions, the Chancellor continued with his opposition, and so Britain remains the only EU nation not in favour of the cap.

There is still some fine detail left to be negotiated over the next few weeks, so if Osborne doesn't want to make the politically significant choice of being explicitly out-voted by the EU for the first time on this issue he could change his stance; but, as the Guardian's Ian Traynor writes, "there was no doubt that the central decision, to clamp down on bonuses, was irreversible".

Now that victory is within their grasp, some in Europe are looking to the next battle. The Telegraph's Louise Armitstead and Bruno Waterfield report that Spain's finance minister, Luis de Guindos, is looking at applying the same rules to salaries overall:

“We are very much in favour of the limitation on variable remuneration but that’s not the only issue,” he said. “The question is also the entirety of remuneration, which is sometimes more important. And Spain’s position is that shareholders’ meetings must have a major involvement and should decide the overall remuneration of bankers.”

De Guindos' plan hints at the real aim of the bonus cap. As I wrote last week, there are a number of possible targets, and the cap is flawed at achieving any of them. It will do little to affect the balance of risk in the system; little to affect the overall remuneration of bankers; and, since bonuses are more of a historical artefact than a considered motivation to action, there's not really any reason to think that they actually have any effect from the start.

It's clear from de Guindos' words that at least some of the support for capping bonuses comes because it's seen as an easy way to reduce the pay of bankers; and that now that that's done, the salaries should be next in line.

But as the Guardian's Zoe Williams discovered, the money has to go somewhere. Tim Simons, "who works in operations for a government-owned investment bank", makes the point to her:

"When a bank makes money, it either pays to its employees; or it pays to its shareholders – the wealthy, I call them."
"But aren't the employees wealthy too?"
"No, traders aren't wealthy, they're just well-paid."

For similar reasons, I've heard bankers refer to their profession—with tongue firmly in cheek—as the ultimate victory of Marxism. It is, after all, an industry in which the workers have successfully captured nearly all the surplus value they create.

Simons seems correct that the trade-off the banks face is between handing money to employees or shareholders. Take this, from 2005 but still relevant:

During in the past four years, securities firms in the US paid $7bn more in bonuses than they made in profits, $3bn more in 2004 alone… And compensation stays high even when profits are down. When J.P. Morgan admitted to bad bets last month, it slashed its net income for the second quarter. But during the same period, it paid employees more than $4bn, as it has in each of the past four quarters. On average, shareholders got just one dollar $1 for every $4 paid to employees.

But what that highlights the real problem for people who feel that bankers' pay is inequitable, distortionary, or in some other way problematic: ultimately, the pay is just a symptom of the fact that banking is an extraordinarily profitable industry.

In the US, finance accounts for just 8 per cent of GDP, but almost 30 per cent of corporate profits:

Noah Smith, examining why that might be, suggests that banking as a sector has naturally enormous economies of scale, and very few diseconomies. Put them together, and the tendency toward monopoly in finance is even greater than it is in capitalism generally. And so banks gain monopoly (or, more accurately, oligopoly) status, and can extract monopoly profits.

That even fits with what Simons told Williams. His dichotomy— "money goes to the employees or the shareholders"—misses the fact that banks could use that money sloshing around to boost the amount they pay savers, lower the interest rate they charge on loans, or reduce the fees and charges they levy on customers. (That applies just as much to investment banking as conventional retail banking). In a competitive industry, that's what would happen; but finance isn't a competitive industry.

The vast sums of money floating around the system have to exit it somewhere. High pay—and high pay in the city particularly—has a corrosive effect on the nation, but to tackle it without addressing the anticompetitive nature of the finance sector overall is prescribing painkillers to heal a broken arm.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.