Page last updated at 18:30 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Who is best suited to review bankers' pay?

Nils Blythe
BBC Business correspondent

Canary Wharf skyline
There have been a lot of strong words about City bonuses

Bonus payments for bankers have come under extraordinary pressure this week.

The prime minister has called for a system in which bonuses could sometimes be clawed back.

Both the Financial Services Authority and a Treasury inquiry led by ex-City regulator Sir David Walker, are examining the bonus system. But have we got the right people reviewing bankers' pay?

Sir David Walker has held senior posts at the Treasury and Bank of England. He has also been a senior executive at the investment bank Morgan Stanley, which is one of the so-called "bulge bracket" firms.

"Bulge" is a reference to the size of the pay packets it hands out.

So Sir David's perspective on what constitutes a large bonus still not be the same as most other people's.

Public sector jobs

The same criticism applies to the bosses of the Financial Services Authority.

The FSA chairman is Lord Turner. He has devoted large amounts of his time in recent years to chairing reviews for the government on pensions, climate change and low pay.

But his day job while he was doing all that was as a vice chairman of Merrill Lynch - another bulge bracket bank.

So again, no stranger to the large bonus.

Reporting to him is the chief executive of the FSA - Hector Sants. And - you have guessed it already - Mr Sants is also a former high flying investment banker.

Admirers of Lord Turner and Hector Sants - and there are plenty of them - argue that it is precisely because they have been extremely well paid as investment bankers that they can "afford" to take important, but less well paid public sector jobs.


The argument is also used that the best regulators are poachers turned gamekeepers.

But can people who have spent many years in an environment where multi-million bonuses are seen as normal really see the world as others do?

Which brings us to another difficult question. To what extent do ministers or regulators really want to control City pay? The rhetoric has been focused around some fairly uncontroversial ideas: not rewarding failure and avoiding incentives for taking silly risks.

There have also been a lot of strong words about how bank directors will not be getting bonuses this year.

Which rather ignores the fact that most big banks only have a handful of executive directors on their boards, while there are armies of extremely highly paid executives and traders who are not affected by limits on the boardroom.

Taking risks

But if it comes to a systematic attempt to limit City pay, life gets much more difficult. Ministers know that banks and bankers are very mobile. London became a favourite base because of so-called 'light touch' regulation and a beneficial tax regime.

Tough rules on pay in Britain could see banks moving elsewhere. No bad thing, many would say. But like it or loathe it, financial services has become a key part of the UK economy.

The Financial Services Authority is telling banks that if their pay structures are rewarding inappropriate risk-taking they will be forced to hold more capital. That's a meaningful threat at a time when banks have little ability to raise new capital.

But bankers are nothing if not ingenious. Banking pay will dip for a few years. But without concerted international action, don't bet on big bonuses disappearing for very long.

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