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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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.