David Prosser: Hysterical bellyaching over bonuses

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The Independent Online

Outlook: So the good times are back for the banks, with Barclays and HSBC both reporting fat profits for the first half of the year. Trebles all round, then, particularly if you're a banker anticipating the sort of fat bonus that drives so many people into apoplexy.

Well not entirely. As we report today, both banks have actually had a pretty mixed first half, with recession-linked setbacks hitting many parts of their business. And those bonus reports are pretty misleading too, however outraged some of the critics – step forward politicians eager to score points – profess to be.

Barclays, we should point out straight away, hasn't actually paid any bonuses yet this year. Barclays Capital traders may well trouser lorry-loads of cash given how the bank seems to be performing, but only at the end of the year and only if the bank decides to make the payments in the same way as last year. All those gigantic bonuses you're hearing about right now are theoretical – they'll be paid assuming the good times continue and that BarCap pays out the same chunk of its income on pay and bonuses as it did last year.

In fact, we don't yet know how Barclays will calculate its bonuses next year. Nor do its staff, since the bank has not yet finished revamping its scheme, an overhaul announced to appease critics of the industry. The bank's new scheme may or may not be seen as over-generous or too short-termist, but let's at least give it a chance to publish the details.

Outside of the opportunistic political environment, many people seem to be willing to do that. Reaction to the potential bonuses on blogs yesterday was balanced. Certainly, there was plenty of bellyaching about bonuses, some of it quite hysterical, but there was no shortage of defenders of Barclays either – many of whom made the quite reasonable point that the bank received not a penny of taxpayer support when it was threatened by the crunch last autumn.

Strictly speaking, of course, that's not quite accurate. It's true that Barclays did not turn to the British Government for funding – preferring Middle Eastern state support, as it happens – unlike Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds or HBOS. But for many years it has benefitted from a State guarantee, the implicit promise that the taxpayer would bail out Barclays' depositors in the event that the bank went under with their money.

That guarantee is the reason so many people want to see the likes of Barclays broken up, with new laws preventing retail and investment banks operating under one roof. The fact that BarCap is doing so well will not curtail that campaign, particularly when and if large bonuses are forthcoming for traders. Those who are infuriated by casino banking – though remember the banks mostly play with clients' cash rather than their own – aren't interested in who is winning and losing, but the size of the stakes at risk.

Nevertheless, these latest banking results are a good example of how combining retail and investment banking can be a positive thing. Not least, the two businesses represent diversification of a kind. Retail banking is a cyclical enterprise – the retail operations of both HSBC and Barclays suffered during the first half as bad debt rose in the face of the recession. The strength of their investment banking arms offset that weakness and were the banking group to be prevented from that sort of trading, such an offset would not be available.

You will see, for example, how the fortunes of Lloyds Banking Group and RBS, both so much more dependent on retail, look markedly different to those of Barclays and HSBC when the two banks report later this week.

That should mean smaller bonuses for their staff, which will appease those who can't abide the idea of an organisation in which the taxpayer holds a large stake offering big pay-outs. Still, which of these banks would you rather we had a stake in going forward? Barclays and HSBC may have to run more of a gauntlet on bonus opprobrium, but their shareholders are in a better place right now – and for the foreseeable future – than those of other banks.

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