We have covered the issue of bank bonuses in previous blogs. See for example: Banking on bonuses? Not for much longer (November 2009); “We want our money back and we’re going to get it” (President Obama) (January 2010); and Payback time (Updated April 2010). But the issue has not been resolved. Despite public outrage around the world over the behaviour of banks that caused the credit crunch and about banks having to be bailed out with ‘taxpayers money’ and, as a result, people facing tax rises and cuts in public-sector services and jobs, bankers’ pay and bonuses are soaring once more. The individuals who caused the global economic crisis seem immune to the effects of their actions. But are things about to change?
The Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS) has confirmed tough new guidelines on bank bonuses applying to all banks operating in the EU. The CEBS’s prime purpose in recommending restricting bonuses is to reduce the incentive for excessive and dangerous risk taking. As it states in paragraph 1 of the Guidelines on Remuneration Policies and Practices:
Whilst institutions’ remuneration policies were not the direct cause of this crisis, their drawbacks, nonetheless, contributed to its gravity and scale. It was generally recognized that excessive remuneration in the financial sector fuelled a risk appetite that was disproportionate to the loss-absorption capacity of institutions and of the financial sector as a whole.
The guidelines include deferring 40–60% of bonuses for three to five years; paying a maximum of 50% of bonuses in cash (the remainder having to be in shares); setting a maximum bonus level as a percentage of an individual’s basic pay; appointing remuneration committees that are truly independent; publishing the pay and bonuses of all senior managers and ‘risk takers’. Although they are only recommendations, it is expected that bank regulators across the EU will implement them in full.
So will they be effective in curbing the pay and bonuses of top bank staff? Will they curb excessive risk taking? Or will banks simply find ways around the regulations? The following articles discuss these issues
Bankers’ bonuses to face strict limits in Europe BBC News, Hugh Pym (10/12/10)
Bankers’ bonuses to face strict limits in Europe BBC News (10/12/10)
Europe set to link banking bonuses to basic salaries The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (10/12/10)
Some bankers may escape EU cash bonus limit moneycontrol.com (India) (11/12/10)
Banks to sidestep bonus crackdown by raising salaries Guardian, Jill Treanor (10/12/10)
Bonuses: When bank jobs pay Guardian (11/12/10)
Bank bonuses (portal page) Financial Times
Committee of European Banking Supervisors (CEBS)
CEBS home page
CEBS has today published its Guidelines on Remuneration Policies and Practices (CP42) CEBS news release (10/12/10)
Guidelines on Remuneration Policies and Practices (10/12/10)
- What are main objectives of the CEBS guidelines?
- Assess the arguments used by the banking industry in criticising the guidelines.
- In what ways can the banks get around these new regulations (assuming the guidelines are accepted by EU banking regulators)?
- What conditions would have to met for a remuneration committee to be truly independent?
- How likely is it that countries outside the EU will adopt similar regulations? How could they be persuaded to do so?
With banks around the world revealing massive profits and huge bonuses, governments are getting increasingly uneasy that their bailouts have lined the pockets of bank executives. Not surprisingly voters are demanding that bankers should not be rewarded for their reckless behaviour. After all, it was taxpayers’ money that prevented many banks going bankrupt during the credit crunch.
Banks, of course, seek to justify the bonuses. If you don’t pay large bonuses, they maintain, then senior staff will leave and profits will suffer. It’s nothing to do with ‘morality’, they claim. It’s the market. ‘If you don’t pay the market rate, then executives will leave and take higher-paid jobs elsewhere.’
So are governments calling this bluff? In his pre-Budget report in December, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, announced a 50% tax on bank bonuses over £25,000. This was followed by an announcement by Nicholas Sarkozy that the French government would impose a similar 50% tax on bonuses over €27,500.
Then in mid January, President Obama proposed a tax on financial institutions with balance sheets above $50 billion. This would be levied at a rate of 0.15 percent of certain assets. But this was not a tax on bank bonuses, as favoured by the British and French governments, nor a tax on financial transactions – a type of Tobin tax – as favoured by Angela Merkel (see Tobin or not Tobin: the tax proposal that keeps reappearing). Nevertheless, it was another way of recouping for the taxpayer some of the money used to rescue banks and prevent a banking collapse.
So is this payback time for bankers, or will it simply be bank shareholders that suffer? And why can banks pay such large bonuses in the face of so much public hostility? The following articles explore the issues.
To leave or not to leave: the supertax question Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins and Kate Burgess (9/1/10)
French tax to raise €360m Financial Times, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Ben Hall (13/1/10)
Oversized bank bonuses: classic case of overcharging The Business Times (Singapore), Anthony Rowley (15/1/10)
Obama vows to recoup ‘every dime’ taxpayers lent banks Belfast Telegraph (15/1/10)
Obama outlines $117bn bank levy (including video) BBC News (14/1/10)
Obama lays out his proposal to tax big US banks Sydney Morning Herald, Jackie Calmes (16/1/10)
Obama’s bank tax will only work if there’s a master plan in place Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (14/1/10)
Turning the tables The Economist (14/1/10)
Obama’s bigger rod for banks BBC News, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (14/1/10)
Will Obama’s tax go global? BBC News, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (15/1/10)
Darling: I won’t do an Obama and tax the banks Scotsman, Eddie Barnes (16/1/10)
Obama tax is only the beginning of the banking Blitz Telegraph, Edmund Conway (15/1/10)
Bank taxes edge closer to the real target Guardian, Dan Roberts (15/1/10)
- Compare the incentive effects on bankers of the British, French and US measures discussed in the articles.
- Why does the ‘market’ result in high bank bonuses? Where does economic power lie in the market?
- Assume that you hold shares in Bank A. Would you welcome (a) high bonuses for executives of Bank A; (b) a tax on bank bonuses; (c) a ceiling on bank bonuses; (d) a tax on certain bank assets? Explain.
- What insights can game theory provide for the likely success in clawing back bank bonuses without doing damage to the economy?
- Consider whether Obama’s tax will “go global”.
The New Economic Foundation (NEF) is “an independent think-and-do tank that inspires and demonstrates real economic well-being.” It aims “to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environmental and social issues. We work in partnership and put people and the planet first.” It has just published a study into pay, A Bit Rich: Calculating the real value to society of different professions (see link below). This argues that narrow notions of productivity, whilst having some relation to pay, are a poor way of judging the worth of particular jobs to society.
“In this report NEF … takes a new approach to looking at the value of work. We go beyond how much different professions are paid to look at what they contribute to society. We use some of the principles and valuation techniques of Social Return on Investment analysis to quantify the social, environmental and economic value that these roles produce – or in some cases undermine.
Our report tells the story of six different jobs. We have chosen jobs from across the private and public sectors and deliberately chosen ones that illustrate the problem. Three are low paid – a hospital cleaner, a recycling plant worker and a childcare worker. The others are highly paid – a City banker, an advertising executive and a tax accountant. We recognise that our incentives are created by the institutions and systems around us. It is not our intention therefore, to target the individuals that do these jobs but rather to examine the professions themselves.”
So, to what extent do rates of pay reflect the ‘true value’ of what is being created? How could we establish this ‘true value’? Does pay even reflect marginal productivity in the narrow private sense? The report and the articles look at these issues.
A Bit Rich New Economics Foundation (14/12/09), (see also)
Top bankers destroy value, study claims Financial Times, Chris Giles (14/12/09)
Hospital cleaners ‘worth more to society than bankers Telegraph, James Hall (14/12/09)
Cleaners ‘worth more to society’ than bankers – study BBC News, Martin Shankleman (14/12/09)
Cleaners worth more to society than bankers, says thinktank Guardian (14/12/09)
Hospital cleaners ‘of more value to society than bankers’ Scotsman, Alan Jones (14/12/09)
Bankers and accountants a drain on the state, says think-tank Management Today (14/12/09)
Are cleaners worth more than bankers? BBC World Service (14/12/09)
- What is meant by the marginal productivity theory of wage determination? Does the NEF study undermine this theory? Explain.
- Why are elite bankers, tax accountants and advertising executives paid so much more than hospital cleaners, waste recycling workers and childcare workers?
- “Until the prices of goods and services reflect the true costs of their production, incentives will be misaligned. This means damaging activities will be relatively cheap and profitable, while positive activities will be discouraged.” Explain this statement and whether you agree with it.
- To what extent can the misalignment of pay and social worth be explained by externalities?
- What is the basis for arguing that tax accountants and City bankers have negative social worth? Do you agree? Explain.
- What would happen if hospital cleaners were give a pay rise and bankers given a pay cut so that cleaners ended up with a higher pay than bankers?
- In the light of the NEF study, what policies should the government adopt toward pay inequality?
The blame for the global economic crisis has been placed on many different people, but one area that has been severely criticised for the extent of the financial crisis is banking and financial regulation (or a lack thereof). One thing that has been repeated is that we must learn from our mistakes and therefore tighten financial regulation on a global scale. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says the ‘rapid return to the City’s bonus culture shows that real reform has been “very limited”’. France in particular is arguing for tighter financial regulation, including curbing bankers’ bonuses to avoid a repeat of last year’s meltdown. However, it is meeting resistance from the UK and USA. Indeed, some banks appear to have extended their bonus culture.
As the banking sector slowly begins to recover, there is concern that few changes have been made to ensure that there is no repeat of the recent crisis. Banks have been warned that they should not resume taking risks, as they did before, as future bailouts by the government (and hence the taxpayer) will not keep happening. The European Union has now unveiled plans for new ‘super-regulators’, but only time will tell whether they will be a success.
EU unveils new ‘super-regulators’ BBC News (23/9/09)
EU proposes new Financial-Market supervision system The Wall Street Journal, Adam Cohen and Charles Forelle (24/9/09)
FSA head launches fresh attack on ‘swollen’ system ShareCast (24/9/09)
Bank crisis lessons ‘not learned’ BBC News (15/9/09)
US, UK resisting French drive for regulation AFP (22/9/09)
European System of Financial Supervisors (ESFS): Frequently Asked Questions Mondovisione (23/9/09)
Tighter grip on economy needed BBC News (13/9/09)
Turner warns against regulation overkill Money Marketing (23/9/09)
EU calls for European Banking, Securities Regulators Bloomberg (24/9/09)
EU financial watchdog to rely on moral authority The Associated Press (23/9/09)
Obama issues warning to bankers (including video) BBC News (14/9/09)
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of tighter regulation of the financial sector for (a) the UK and (b) the global economy? What forms should such regulation take?
- What are the arguments for and against imposing a statutory capital adequacy ratio on banks that is substantially higher than the ratios with which banks have been operating in recent years?
- In what ways was a lack of financial regulation responsible for the financial crisis?
- Why is the continuation and possibly growth of the bonus culture a potentially dangerous issue for any future crisis?
- The articles talk about ‘lessons being learned’. What lessons are they referring to?
- The financial crisis has affected everyone in some way. What has been the impact on taxpayers?