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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496