The unsqueezed top: how bankers' pay has already returned to its peak

The new report from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards busts the myth that pay has fallen since the crash.

One of the many myths busted by today's report from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is that bankers' pay has fallen significantly since the crash. In his testimony to the inquiry, George Osborne noted estimates that the total City bonus pool fell from from £11.5bn in 2006 to £1.5bn in 2013, while Anthony Browne, the head of the British Bankers Association, pointed out that since 2007, cash bonuses are down 77 per cent and the total bonus pool has more than halved.

But what neither mentioned is that bankers have compensated themselves by simply claiming higher basic salaries. As the report notes, total remuneration across RBS, Lloyds, HSBC and Barclays has remained relatively stable. Indeed, since staff numbers have fallen significantly, per-capita remuneration has actually increased. As the graph below shows, pay at most banks has already returned to or exceeded its pre-crisis level. 

The report rightly goes on to argue: 

Public anger about high pay in banking should not be dismissed as petty jealousy or ignorance of the operation of the free market. Rewards have been paid for failure. They are unjustified. Although the banks and those who speak for them are keen to present evidence that bonuses have fallen, fixed pay has risen, offsetting some of the effect of this fall. The result is that overall levels of remuneration in banking have largely been maintained. Aggregate pay levels of senior bankers have also been unjustified. Given the performance of the banks, these levels of pay have produced excessive costs. Indeed, at a time of pay restraint in the public and private sectors, they will raise significant anger amongst taxpayers who have been required to subsidise these banks. These elevated levels of remuneration are particularly unacceptable when banks are complaining of an inability to lend owing to the need to preserve capital and are also attempting to justify rises in charges for consumers.
But while the bankers have already recovered all the losses from the crisis, average household incomes are not expected to return to their pre-recession level until 2023 (£22,000 in real terms). Another timely reminder, then, that we're not "all in this together". 
Total pay at RBS and the other three main banks has already returned to its pre-recession peak. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

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.