EU nears cap on banker bonuses, as Osborne holds out

The UK is one of just three countries opposed to the cap.

EU banking reforms are set to impose a limit on bankers' pay, against the wishes of much of the City of London.

The proposal, backed by the democratically-elected European Parliament, would cap bonuses that exceed the recipients salary. France has recently come around to the idea, and, the Financial Times reports, there is now a "clear majority" which is willing to agree to the cap just to get the debate out of the way. The rest of the reforms, which are focused on bank capital ratios, are considered urgent, and there is little desire to hold them up over the pay caps.

The UK, leading those who oppose the pay caps, has suggested that even it is preparing to case on the basic idea, circulating a policy document suggesting reforms which "build on the principle of a cap", the paper reports:

It strengthens current rules enforced in the UK with an absolute ban on upfront cash bonuses that exceed salary and a requirement for bank shareholders to set a cap on variable to fixed pay.

But a ban on upfront cash bonuses is very different from the ban on the entire bonus exceeding salary. That proposed ban can, with a vote from a supermajority of shareholders, be weakened to a 2:1 ratio of bonus to salary, but even that is still a far more restrictive requirement than the one the UK desires.

The British government has reasons for its scepticism. The argument for including bonuses in a bill focused on bank stability is that, when a bonus can exceed the value of one's salary, the incentive to play it safe rather than go for massive short-term profits is reduced. But the UK also makes a compelling argument for focusing just on cash bonuses. Other types of bonus, like front-dated stock options or bonds which vest only if the employer still exists, can be tweaked so as to encourage not only profit but healthy, stable, profit.

In contrast, if the EU's current plan passes, the incentive will be to offer the entire value of the cap in up-front cash. The magnitude of the bonus may thus be shrunk, but its incentive effects could end up being perversely increased.

Nonetheless, politically the economic effects of the bonus cap are likely to be less important than the simple fact of its existence. The banking sector has been seen as overpaid by most of the British public for a very long time now, and if Osborne digs his heels in over what many will see as the right for banks to pay unlimited bonuses, he could find himself even more unpopular than he already is.

That is especially true if the importance of what is being delayed hits home. The capital ratios — which are the main focus of the talks — are widely seen as one of the first post-crisis regulations which could actually have a real effect on the likelihood and severity of future financial crises. By requiring banks to have a certain amount of liquid capital on hand, the move will, it is hoped, prevent the damaging bank runs which ultimately contributed to the recession in 2008. If the Chancellor is seen as holding the economy hostage over the right for banks to pay unlimited bonuses, his image as a canny political operative may be damaged somewhat.

Photograph: Getty Images

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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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.