James Moore: Precious little humility from those at the top despite banks' misdeeds

Outlook. Plus: Swiss show the way and block an escape route
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What would it take for a banking executive to not be awarded a bonus, as opposed to voluntarily forgoing a payout, as only Antony Jenkins at Barclays did this year?

It is a question worth asking now that the reporting season has been brought to a close by HSBC, which handed a £2m annual payout and all sorts of other sweeties to its chief executive, Stuart Gulliver.

HSBC, you may remember, was fined a record £1.2bn last year by United States regulators, who charged it with acting as a conduit for Mexican drug money and assisting with sanctions busting on behalf of the murderous regime in Iran.

Before answering the question, let's step back a moment.

HSBC failed to live up to the City's expectations for its profits last year, it is true. But the bank still made an awful lot of money and increased its dividend by 11 per cent. It was the only British-based bank, in fact, to pay more to shareholders who put their money at risk to enable banks to conduct their activities than it paid to its staff.

HSBC also paid a substantial amount of corporation tax, gave the oft-voiced threat to relocate its headquarters away from the UK a rest (a decision on location is apparently on indefinite hold) and performed some socially useful functions.

One notable endeavour was a £5bn fund set up to help UK businesses wanting to export to the Far East, which is just the sort of thing banks ought to be doing, but too rarely do. A look at the best buy tables will even show that it has some very competitive mortgage deals on offer.

All well and good. But that fine puts a tarnish over everything HSBC has done. Sanctions busting and drug money. That bears repeating, again and again.

The arguments for paying up this year go something like this: the team at the top of HSBC weren't responsible and are doing their best to sort out the mess. And of course, they're the Lionel Messis or the Pelés (for those of a more mature vintage) of the business world with rivals beating a path to their doors (even though the executive transfer market is as quiet as it has ever been).

Funnily enough, those same arguments were advanced about their predecessors, and about the former bosses at other banks who were in charge when the current sink hole full of scandals were in their most active phases.

Ah, but now we have clawback! For the first time institutions will be able to withhold some of the bonus money if things go bad.

Excuse me for being cynical, but given the industry's record I have a degree of scepticism about how willing boards will be to push the button should problems emerge in future. After all, while banking executives have been quick to take credit for improvements they have been even quicker to disavow any responsibility for anything that has gone wrong.

Which leads us back to that fine. So gross were HSBC's misdeeds that they warranted a gesture from its leaders, an acknowledgement that this and the other problems the bank has been through (US subprime loans anyone?) merited some humility from those at the top beyond the standard sotto voce expressions of regret.

They merited leadership. Sadly, there was precious little of that in evidence yesterday, just as there was precious little from Royal Bank of Scotland or Lloyds Banking Group.

It's true that in banking the tune has changed a bit. Given the public's fury at what has been going on in the City, it had to. But the song remains the same.

Swiss show the way and block an escape route

Has the entire nation of Switzerland suddenly started subscribing to Pirc's shareholder voting advice service?

You'd think so given the outcome of its referendum on boardroom pay.

A majority in every canton, and more than two thirds in total, backed the sort of curbs that have produced howls of protest from the business lobby in this country, combined with dark threats of quitting these shores for more "favourable" business climes. Such as, say, Switzerland.

Where, in addition to a mandatory vote that will allow shareholders to block executive packages, there will be no more golden hellos or excessive pay-offs for the bosses of public companies listed there or for Swiss companies listed overseas.

The multimillion-pound bung paid to Marc Bolland before he joined Marks & Spencer would be outlawed under the scheme.

The usually conservative burghers of Switzerland have had enough. Well, this is the country that has had to pay up for UBS, and that's just your starter for ten.

It's worth noting here that the plan was put together by a businessman, although to make it truly effective it would still require shareholders to do more than they have so far proved capable of doing.

There is a message here, in the Swiss plan and the European Union's even more controversial scheme to limit bonuses at banks to no more than 100 per cent of salary, or perhaps twice that if a super-majority of shareholders approve.

Politicians have little choice but to act when faced with the outrage of voters who have suffered severe pain from the excesses of banking and find it inexplicable that executives generally award themselves enormous pay rises when their workers are squeezed.

The fact that the reforms in this country have been so half-hearted is part of the reason for the disillusionment with politicians here.

As for the threats by executives to quit? Well, there are countries where they don't have pesky things like democracy. But suggesting you'll depart for corrupt places where you won't have to put up with complaints or votes probably won't go down too well.