It's bonus time - and the knives are out

It's like Christmas all over again - for a lucky handful at least.

In the high-class homes of Notting Hill, London, the mansions of Connecticut and luxury towers of Hong Kong, investment bankers are eagerly waiting for their bonus cheques.

The latest round of bumper payouts could not come at a more incendiary time. The credit crisis that began almost five years ago is showing little sign of abating, unemployment is rising and pay for most workers is flatlining. Unsurprisingly, public anger about bonuses is growing.

Politicians have piled into the debate in a week that saw Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Stephen Hester hand back his bonus and his widely vilified predecessor, Fred Goodwin, stripped of his knighthood.

They were headline-grabbing gestures, but have done little to upset the status quo. Banks say bonus pools have shrunk and payouts are being capped, but outside the glitzy world of investment banking, those used to drawing just an annual salary are baffled by a system of hefty incentives on top of already high pay.

To put the disparities into context, the average wage bill for one top banker would pay for almost 70 nurses.

For British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, the bonus culture is "corrosive" for the economy and society.

He argues the meaning of the term "bonus" has been lost along the years.

"Exceptional rewards for exceptional performance means million-pound bonuses should not be handed out to people for just doing their job," he said in a speech on Friday.

He concluded that the system had failed.

"It has enriched individual bankers, but weakened the banking sector as a whole by encouraging a form of risk which crossed the line into sheer recklessness," said Miliband.

"For all the reform of the way bonuses are paid, they remain on a scale beyond the imagination of the vast majority of the population."

The bonus system in banking is a hangover from the days of partnerships, where institutions had to distribute any gains because there was no allowance for retained profit, nor any concept of equity. But that annual disbursement of cash to partners has lived on into the days of shareholder-owned banks and even, now, to state-controlled lenders.

Professor Karel Williams at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester notes, however, that in the days of payouts to partners, those senior employees put up the capital and risked their own livelihoods.

Their reward models have left the banking sector with "compensation ratios" - the proportion of revenues paid out to staff - commonly as high as 40 per cent.

In other words, unlike almost any other industry, senior employees are able to grab an extraordinarily large slice of the firm's revenues - not its profits, but its turnover.

Williams says banks have only been able to generate such extraordinary rewards by leveraging - making bets with borrowed money.

"The banks were living in a world of shareholder value, where they were under pressure to deliver returns on equity of 15 to 20 per cent. What they did was they levered up," he says.

He adds that so-called proprietary (or "prop") trading, where banks use their own money to make risky investment bets, was another way of supercharging returns for investors, and therefore for the traders involved.

"What did they do with all this money? The short answer is, they passed it around within the financial system," he says.

Williams believes these bumper payouts distort the traditional role of the shareholder-owned firm, which is meant to distribute surplus income to investors: "I would describe it as the corruption of a public company."

He says no one complained about these lavish remuneration packages in the good times, because "the first rule of stock markets is: people who succeed are allowed to get away with murder". He believes that the Government should legislate to bring compensation ratios down.

Other critics of the bonus system argue it has sucked money away from elsewhere in society.

Tapping into anger in the business community over the difficulty of getting bank loans, Miliband argued that if banks were to show greater restraint on pay, there would be more money left over for them to lend.

Tony Greenham, of think-tank the New Economics Foundation, believes deregulating financial services has boosted their profitability - on the surface at least - but that has come at a cost to others.

"These profits have turned out either to be illusory, or not wealth that's been created, but resources that have been extracted from various parts of the economy," he says. "Finance is not like other sectors. If you deregulate finance then it begins to have monopoly control over the rest of the economy."

Bankers' pay is notoriously opaque. Remuneration typically consists of complex packages of base salary, plus bonuses of cash, shares and options that vary from one employee to another, never mind from bank to bank. So it is difficult to come up with a benchmark. But recent data suggests the average remuneration for 1265 senior bank staff was £1.8 million ($3.4 million) in 2010. In an analysis of regulatory disclosures by eight leading banks, the Guardian found the average pay deal was £1 million or more for employees regarded as having the most influence over risk-taking activities.

The highest average was at Goldman Sachs (£4 million) and the lowest at HSBC (£1 million), during a year when data from the Office for National Statistics showed the average wage in the UK was £25,900.

What makes a banker imagine they are worth so much? Labour market expert John Philpott puts it down to business talk about "talent".

"They treat themselves as though they're in the same situation as superstar sportspeople or entertainers," says Philpott, who is economic adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Banks, he says, "set people up as particularly special, whereas the degree to which the supply of financial services experts is fixed is highly questionable. There's a lot of evidence to suggest the success of these people is contextual, and if they go to different establishments, they often perform worse."

Philpott cites a further kind of damage to society from the lavish rewards available in finance: a brain drain.

"A lot of people who would probably have gone into more productive endeavours - engineering or maths graduates - go into finance instead."

He expects total remuneration packages in banking to come down over the coming years, and there are signs from within the banking world itself that he may be right.

RBS chairman Sir Philip Hampton, who recently turned down a £1.4 million bonus, has argued bankers' compensation is excessive.

"Pay has been high for too long, particularly in the banks, particularly in the investment banks," he told BBC radio. "Shareholders have done pretty badly and employees have done pretty well over the last 10 years.

"That needs to be corrected. It isn't a society or fairness issue, it is a straightforward business issue.

"Too much of the money is not going to the right place, and the shareholder rewards have not been sufficient."

Before anyone in the finance world starts to whine about the prospects of pay cuts, one of the world's top investment bankers has some harsh words.

Morgan Stanley boss James Gorman says anyone who does not understand falling pay needs a reality check. He offers them a three-point life plan: "You're naive. Read the newspaper, number one," he says.

"Number two: if you put your compensation in a one-year context to define your overall level of happiness, you have a problem which is much bigger than the job.

And number three: If you're really unhappy, just leave. I mean, life's too short."

- Observer

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