Don't be too hard on Osborne: the bonus cap is horribly flawed

What will happen to bankers pay? Very little. To their risk taking? Very little. To, basically, anything? You guessed it.

In opposing the EU's cap on bankers' bonuses, George Osborne isn't just giving nakedly preferential treatment to the city. The chancellor does have some strong arguments on his side as to why the cap is a bad idea.

To recap, late on Wednesday, the EU parliament secured agreement to impose a mandatory 1:1 ratio of salary relative to "variable pay". That ratio can rise to 2:1 with shareholder approval (subject to 50 per cent quorum), but no further. Britain still has the option of pushing the move to a vote, but that would cross a rubicon in UK-EU relations: in the past, Britain, commonly an outlier in matters of banking policy, has pushed negotiations to the brink of formal vote and then taken a few ceremonial trade-offs in return for its approval. That way, it can truthfully say it has never been overruled by the EU.

Not only would forcing a vote we would definitely lose play terribly politically — George Osborne making his biggest-ever stand in the EU over the right of bankers to be paid exorbitant sums — it would also be a gift to the anti-EU wing of the conservative party, of which Osborne is, thankfully, not a member.

But while he shouldn't force a vote, the Chancellor has good reasons for being wary of the policy. There are three big concerns, two of which are legitimate, and two of which are shared by the chancellor (although not the same two).

The first is that the policy will do nothing for equality. Despite the fact that the cap on bonuses is sometimes phrased as tackling "high pay", it will, in all likelihood, increase pay. As Deborah Hargreaves writes:

Already base salaries in the banking sector have been rising sharply as regulators try and choke off the multimillion-pound annual bonus awards. The EU's plan could lead to more pressure for a rise in fixed pay.

Banks have increased salaries across Europe by 37% in the past four years in response to a crackdown on bonuses and pressure from regulators to claw back some rewards if bets go wrong later on.

The reasoning is fairly obvious. If you cap bonuses at the same level as salaries, and put no limit on salaries, it's clear what's going to happen.

Of course, that's fairly unlikely to be a motivating factor in Osborne's reasoning. If there's one thing the Conservatives are comfortable with, it's people getting filthy rich (although they seem to quietly ignore the "as long as they pay their taxes" part of Peter Mandleson's famous phrase). But it's an important argument against the bonus cap overall.

Not such a strong argument is that banks might flee the EU to avoid it. There is certainly going to be some pressure, because the cap has overreached such that it also affects international operations of EU-based banks. The name being bandied around is Standard Chartered, the London-based firm that does most of its work in emerging markets (back in the news at the moment over it's £110,000 fine in Taiwan). But the cap can't be both easy-to-evade and a motivation to spend time and money moving headquarters, and all indications are that it's the former rather than the latter.

But the biggest problem with the bonus cap is that it won't do anything to address the most important reason for its introduction: tackling risk in the banking sector. The model Osborne and the UK proposed instead was likely to be better in that regard: "our" desired cap would only hit cash bonuses. That would provide an incentive on banks to award increasing chunks of their pay pool in the form of stock options and the like, which encourage bankers to act in the long-term interest of their company, not merely boost their returns for that year to enhance their bonus.

In fact, it's questionable whether bonuses even encourage must risk-taking at all. Crooked Timber's Dan Davies demonstrates that, assuming a bonus is linearly related to performance, the bulk of the bonus encourages very little risk taking at all. Employees have a motivation to take risks if their performance is poor enough that they would get no bonus, but once they have some bonus, every further risk they take is as likely to decrease their income as it is to increase it.

Maybe, as the Guardian suggests, the bonus cap was worth it just to make bankers publicly admit that their high pay has little to do with their actual ability. But for any genuine policy aims, it seems unlikely to be as successful as its promotors hope.

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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump