EU nears cap on banker bonuses, as Osborne holds out

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

Photograph: Getty Images

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.