David Prosser: It's not how big the bonus is, but how you hand it out

Outlook: The suspicion remains that Barclays is desperate to avoid any government strictures on what it pays its executives
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The Independent Online

Wouldn't it be lovely to characterise the decision by Goldman Sachs executives to give up their bonuses as a triumph for the millions of mere mortals who have been enraged by the staggering awards paid to investment bankers? Would that it were so, but the reality of the Goldman affair is more spin than substance.

For one thing, read the smallprint of Goldman's public statements and you'll discover that the money given up by the bank's top seven executives is remaining within the bank's bonus pool (which, by the way, is thought to be worth more than $11bn). In other words, it will be shared out among staff further down the pecking order.

Those forgoing their bonuses, meanwhile, will hardly be on their uppers. Of the seven executives in question, public information on their pay packets last year is only available on four of them. Their rewards totalled $260m last year. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman's chief executive – last year's pay packet was $68.5m – will suffer from this move about the same extent as a Premier League footballer fined a few hundred pounds for swearing at a referee.

Most fundamentally, Goldman does not seem to have announced an actual reform of its bonus system. While the world has baulked at the staggering sums paid to investment bankers over the past few years, the systemic difficulty with the bonus culture is not the size of the payouts but the way in which they promote short-termism.

A better template for reform was provided by the Swiss banking giant UBS yesterday. The bank's senior directors have come under huge pressure in Switzerland to give up their bonuses, and have mostly done so. But crucially, UBS is also introducing a new pay system which will move bonuses on to a three-year timetable that is much more closely aligned to the bank's performance.

Still, at least Goldman has paid lip service to the public outrage over what are viewed in many quarters as rewards for failure. The same cannot be said of several leading British banks.

Interestingly, the terms of the US Federal Reserve's bailout do not require those taking the money to limit compensation to executives, unlike the publicly funded rescue package offered to our creaking banking industry. Even so, Lloyds TSB has already reserved the right to pay bonuses in the form of shares, while Barclays is causing a stink by negotiating a capital infusion from Middle Eastern investors that seems to run counter to all the interests of its existing shareholders. Though publicly denied, the suspicion remains that Barclays is desperate to avoid any government strictures on what it pays its executives.

Bankers' response to criticism of remuneration is always the same. This is a competitive market, they say, and if we don't pay our best people properly, they'll decamp to someone who does faster than you can say collateralised debt obligation.

Maybe so, but with Citigroup cutting more than 50,000 jobs in one fell swoop and almost every other large bank contemplating major headcount culls, isn't this a buyers' market when it comes to staff? Even the best in the business are running out of alternative employers with which to ply their trade.