Better way to tackle big banker's bonuses

Anger in Europe over executive pay is finding its way into legislation.

Anger in Europe over executive pay is finding its way into legislation. The European Parliament, backed by almost all the European Union's finance ministers, plans to cap bankers' bonuses, and 68 per cent of Swiss voters endorsed a referendum initiative to ban "golden parachutes" and put other curbs on bosses' pay.

Agitated voters, grandstanding politicians and intelligent policy rarely go together, and this is a case in point. Let's agree that people are right to be disgusted. In the past decade top bankers led the world into the deepest economic slump since the 1930s, and their banks had to be rescued by taxpayers, yet the culprits aren't exactly suffering. In most cases they still have their jobs and by ordinary standards they're still outrageously well-paid. Bonuses - whose purpose, one is always told, is to reward excellent performance - have fallen but are still being handed out.

Meanwhile, lower down the capitalist food chain, workers are being laid off or told to take pay cuts. It's tough out there, say chief executives, and we all have to make sacrifices. Absolutely, say Europe's ministers of finance; that's why we have to cut essential public services and raise taxes.

Considering the complacency, lack of contrition and in many cases sheer nerve of those responsible for the calamity of the past five years, the miracle is that the popular backlash against capitalism has been so mild. But being morally in the right isn't enough. If policy is to serve voters' interests, rather than gratify their anger, it has to be carefully designed. These initiatives aren't.

The first question is whether it's wise for the government to have any kind of say on how companies pay their executives. Straight away there's a crucial distinction - between banks and financial enterprises that enjoy an implicit public subsidy (through the prospect of a bailout if they get into trouble) and ordinary public companies that don't.

If taxpayers are exposed to losses, regulators are not just entitled to monitor and curb the risks that banks are taking, they're obliged to. This obligation includes regulating pay structures, since those can influence the amount of risk a bank takes on.

So doesn't capping bonuses serve that purpose? Not really. It's bewildering, first of all, that Europe's parliament is insisting on bonus caps in return for consenting to new international rules on bank capital. Requiring more capital is the best and simplest way to reduce the banking subsidy and hence the incentive to take undue risks. The new rules don't go nearly far enough in this respect. Rather than calling for them to be strengthened, the parliament wants a concession on bankers' pay. Go figure.

The parliament wants to limit banking bonuses to 100 per cent of salary, or 200 per cent if shareholders approve. There'll be loopholes, of course, but for the sake of argument let's assume they aren't exploited and the policy works as intended. Banks will simply fold average variable pay into basic salary. Most likely, such limits won't do anything to cut bankers' pay overall, the very issue that upsets the public.

One remedy is not a cap on bonuses, but rules that lock them up and grab them back if things go wrong. Bankers should be made to retain a stake in their company's losses. Big bonuses relative to basic salary - so long as they can be clawed back - would serve that purpose well.

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