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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Brexit would jeopardise the rights of working women

Europe isn’t perfect, but without it millions of women and millions of trade unionists would be at risk of Tory deregulation. 

One of the most important arguments in favour of staying in the EU is the protections that membership affords working people.

Whether it’s equal rights for part-time workers, the agency workers directive or limits on the length of the working week, we all owe the European Union and its Social Charter – campaigned for by a generation of trade unionists from across the continent – a great deal.

Outside of Europe British workers would find themselves worse off both in terms of their pay packets and the rights that they rely on. Add to that the reality that outside the EU risks being a place with lower public spending thanks to a troubled economy and rising privatisation of our public services, you can understand why the vast majority of British trade unions are recommending that their members vote to remain.

And for working women, the choice is starker still, because women have that much more to lose when rights and protections are stripped from the workplace.

Just think what EU law guarantees for all working people through the social charter, and how losing these rights (and putting the Brexit bunch in charge) would impact on things we’ve all come to rely on like maternity pay and guaranteed holiday pay.

Think about how much harder the struggle for equal pay will be if it’s not underpinned by EU law.

Think about how a Boris Johnson led Tory government – outside of Europe, on the fringes of global influence and under increasing pressure from UKIP to withdraw even further from the modern world – would attack your working conditions.

The Tory right – fresh from dragging our country out of Europe and away from regulations that help keep us safe at work aren’t going to stop there. Their next port of call will be other sources of what they deem “red tape” – like equal rights legislation that helps ensure women have all the same opportunities afforded to their male colleagues.

That’s something that matters to me as a trade unionist and as a woman.

It’s something that matters to me as Assistant General Secretary of a union with more than a million female members – UNISON, the biggest membership organisation for women in the country.

It matters to me as President of the TUC – when most trade unionists are women and when we have the first female TUC General Secretary in Frances O’Grady.

But most of all it matters to me because of the stories of all of the women I’ve met and am proud to represent who benefit every single day from Europe-wide protection of their rights.

What we face is the risk of losing those rights to a cynical and desperate campaign based around false promises and rhetoric from the Brexiteers. What we need in this campaign is some straightforward honesty. So here’s my position in a single sentence: Europe isn’t perfect, but without it millions of women and millions of trade unionists would be at risk.

I won’t stand for that. Neither should you. And neither should they either.

Liz Snape is Assistant General Secretary of UNISON and President of the TUC