Banks told if they won't cut bonuses, then ministers will

UK and US governments warn excesses will not be tolerated. Simon Evans reports
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The Independent Online

To the man on the street, plying his trade outside the bubble of the Square Mile, the numbers are staggering. Goldman Sachs, the investment bank bailed out by the US taxpayer last year, is set to pay its staff as much as $23bn (£14bn) in salaries and bonuses this year.

Morgan Stanley, the US investment bank that teetered on the brink of collapse last year, said that it had set aside nearly $5bn in compensation for staff for the third quarter of the year, despite its profits collapsing by 91 per cent compared with the same time last year.

Reports last week suggested that Royal Bank of Scotland, the bank broken by Sir Fred Goodwin, could pay out bonuses of up to £5m to some of its star performers from a pot worth as much as £5bn.

Barclays, which sought its rescue cash from the private Gulf state coffers instead of the Exchequer, is believed to be planning huge bonuses for some of its top brass, including investment bank chief Bob Diamond, who took home $20m in 2007.

According to the influential Centre for Economic and Business Research, bonus payments across the City will reach £6bn this winter – a 50 per cent surge on the same time last year but still less than the stellar amounts given out at the height of the bull market in 2007.

What makes this bonus talk all the more remarkable is that, as Friday's figures showed, Britain's economy is still languishing in a recession, with unemployment galloping towards the three million mark.

It's no wonder that politicians, faced with an election in less than a year's time, are talking tough.

City minister Lord Myners, fired another salvo into the bonuses debate, delivering a warning to bankers to mend their ways or face stinging regulation through legislation. "Bonuses are 'culturally embedded' in an industry that now needs to reform," he said. "Contemplation of big bonuses in these conditions is nothing short of market failure."

The UK's big five banks and 11 other foreign banks, such as Goldman, have already signed up to Financial Services Authority (FSA) and G20 pay guideline principles, which could see bonuses clawed back in future years.

According to Lord Turner, the chairman of the FSA, the regulator has "a range of levers" at its disposal to block "excessive bonus payments". But what these levers are remains a mystery to many.

"We will be talking to banks about whether their bonus pools are appropriate, and if they aren't we will have a frank and full discussion with them," said Lord Turner, who urged banks to use surplus profits to build up their capital reserves rather than pay out giant bonuses to their top staff.

Banks have until next Saturday to submit this year's staff bonus structures to the regulator for scrutiny.

If the softly-softly approach fails – and there's every reason to suggest it will – Labour backbenchers are pushing for a windfall tax on City profits. Although Gordon Brown and senior government ministers have played down the chances of a tax, such a draconian measure still lurks in the background as the nuclear option.

Mervyn King also threw a verbal hand grenade into proceedings when he called for large banks – those "too big to fail" which pose a systemic risk – to be split up.

The massive global support packages for banks has created the "biggest moral hazard in history", said Mr King, who suggested that the utility-like retail and altogether much racier investment banking operations of banks should be kept completely separate.

Across the pond, America's Federal Reserve was putting the final touches to proposals to regulate bonus payouts from banks forced under its control after they took cash handouts from the bailout programme.

America's so-called pay tsar is looking to impose a cap of $500,000 on cash salaries received by executives at affected firms. Executives seeking more than $25,000 in special benefits, such as club memberships or company cars, will have to ask the Government for permission first.