Business

Bankers' bonuses squeezed, salaries up

BBC business editor Robert Peston on new pay rules

Funnily enough, the banks making the biggest stink about the new European rules on bankers' remuneration, which may be announced today, are not the ones perceived to have pushed the boat out when it came to bankers' bonuses during the boom years.

In the UK, HSBC and Standard Chartered are the banks most miffed about the restrictions they'll face on paying guaranteed bonuses and limitations that will be imposed on the amount of bankers' bonuses that can be paid in cash and paid up front.

That's because the rules, set to be agreed today by the Committee of European Bank Supervisors, will be applied by the UK's Financial Services Authority on a global basis for British banks: so they will determine how and what the likes of HSBC and Standard Chartered pay their staff in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, India and so on, as well as what they pay their people in the UK.

And that puts HSBC and Standard at a tremendous disadvantage in their most important markets, or at least that's what the bosses of those banks tell me.

They say that their competitors are still handing out guaranteed bonuses to recruit and retain top wealth generators, and are still doling out great wodges of cash. Which means that HSBC and Standard Chartered are finding it increasingly difficult to retain their best people or to hire new ones.

Because Asia is so profitable for HSBC and Standard Chartered, and because it's generating most growth for them, the notion that they might one day determine to relocate their respective offices to a place where they don't feel restricted in how they run those Asian operations, well that's not a crazy notion.

Strikingly, there's less rumpus about the pay rules being kicked up by those banks with disproportionately larger UK and European businesses.

To be clear, in public they'll talk the talk of how damaging the rules will be for their ability to prevent their genuine wealth creators emigrating to rivals in places like Singapore and Geneva, where there are relatively few restrictions on pay.

And that's not an invented complaint. There's already been some migration of bankers in that way (which, I know, some of you think is no bad thing).

But I have to tell you that those who run those banks acknowledge to me that around each star sit competent but not outstanding bankers, who are paid far too much relative to their genuine wealth-creating skills. So bank bosses insist they would dearly love to find a way to pay these journeymen considerably less.

However the way the banks have anticipated the new regulators' rules certainly won't be seen by many of you as giving the bankers their just deserts.

To cushion the pain of the bonus straitjacket, pretty much all the banks have increased bankers' salaries, the fixed portion of their remuneration, by considerably more than almost anyone else in the economy has enjoyed.

Most of us would say that an extra pound of permanent salary is worth considerably more than a one-off pound of bonus. So if you are thinking of taking a tin of soup and a warm blanket to your banker neighbour, in a Christmas mercy visit, it may not be strictly necessary, yet.‬‪

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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