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The fat cats are back

As governments dither over financial reforms, the bankers who caused the credit crunch are stashing

Less than a year has passed since the financial system came crashing down with the failure of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008. British taxpayers have been left with £1trn of debt, which could take at least a decade to clear. But while the policymakers squabble about how best to restrain the financial system and put sand in the wheels of the bonus culture, the bankers are already off and running.

At Barclays, which made an astonishing £3bn profit in the first half of this year, there will be bonuses all round. HSBC, which racked up a similar total, has promised restraint; though whether the chairman, Stephen Green, a lay preacher, will be able to hold the line - having eschewed bonuses in 2008 - is a moot point. But here in the UK it is the Royal Bank of Scotland, the financial group over which the government has most control and in which the taxpayer holds a 70 per cent stake, that is so far proving among the most rapacious.

Its chief executive, Stephen Hester, has already secured a £9.6m pay package. In an effort to keep and attract the best, RBS is secretly offering key deal-makers and traders guaranteed two-year bonuses. Such behaviour flies directly in the face of the restraint and transparency recommended in the report by the City veteran Sir David Walker, who was commissioned by Gordon Brown to look at bankers' pay and rewards. The excuse given by UK Financial Investments (UKFI), which holds the shares for the taxpayer, is that RBS needs to pay these bonuses to keep the 13,000 or so investment bankers who are key to the recovery of the institution destroyed by the overexuberance of its former chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin.

The chief executive of UKFI, John Kingman, argues that if the semi-nationalised banks are not allowed to compete freely for the best bankers, the taxpayer risks being left with rump banks with little commercial initiative, which will be as big a drag on the economy as the much-derided nationalised industries of the 1970s.

So we have the extraordinary situation of bankers and their boards moving straight back to the status quo ante while the government delays reform. The bankers who caused the credit crunch are enriching themselves again, growth is slumping at the fastest rate since the 1930s, unemployment is surging and the public finances are spinning out of control.

In the final days before parliament took its long summer holiday, three major reports on shaking up the banking system were published. The first was Alistair Darling's much-telegraphed white paper, which included basic reforms such as a new insolvency system for banks - essentially allowing them to write their own wills - and reinforcing the role of the failed watchdog, the Financial Services Authority.

But a series of critical decisions, including over the shape of the new powers demanded by the Bank of England, have yet to be made. Similarly, proposals by the FSA to tighten the capital and cash requirements on the banks are still without the force of law. The Walker report, meanwhile, may have been praised for its toughness - with regard to its suggestion that bonuses be in shares not cash, for instance, and that bankers should have to wait five to seven years for the money - but the report has been bitterly opposed for being too prescriptive and for putting the Square Mile at a competitive disadvantage.

Tory proposals based on the report by the former Labour-appointed Treasury mandarin Sir James Sassoon are the third part of the puzzle. These would abolish the FSA and transfer regulation back to the Bank of England. Adair Turner, the FSA's boss, fears the suggestion that the authority might be abolished could destabilise it just when it is seeking to tighten its grip on the banking system.

As the debate about future regulation grinds on - not just in London, but in Brussels and Washington, too - those banks left standing are having a whale of a time, since one of the consequences of the meltdown is that the number of global players has shrunk dramatically. Among the big names to be eliminated are Lehman (collapsed), Merrill Lynch (swallowed by Bank of America) and Bear Stearns (now part of J P Morgan), while the Swiss bank UBS is so diminished it is no longer seen as a first-rank actor.

The result is more banking income shared among fewer players. The banks left standing, including Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital (the investment banking arm of Barclays), Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, are coining it. Not only do global corporations still need their services - from raising money to conducting foreign exchange deals to finance trade - the profit margins have improved dramatically, while the cost of what the banks pay to borrow their money has plunged.

The higher charges that many are making for loans have increased profits hugely. Just how much was evident from the second-quarter results at Goldman Sachs. Fresh from repaying the $10bn (£6bn) it received from the US government last autumn, it bounced back with $3.44bn of profits in April to June. Roughly half of this was earmarked for staff bonuses valued at $770,000 a head.

It has not been alone: Credit Suisse and J P Morgan have also done handsomely. And while Morgan Stanley posted a second-quarter loss of $1.2bn, this did not stop the bank setting aside some 70 per cent of revenue for future bonuses.

So while governments hesitate over better governance and new pay controls for the banking system, it is business as usual for the fat cats. By the time the politicians act, the bankers will be busy squirrelling away their new fortunes.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads