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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.