Banking on public service

Stephen Hester Image copyright AFP
Image caption Stephen Hester of RBS finds himself the first in the "stocks" over bonuses

It's quickly become one of the rituals of the British winter.

A few weeks before the snowdrops appear, and just after the Christmas credit card bills have dropped through the letter box, banker bonuses get the nation's boilers fired up.

We should have learned by now: bankers don't live by the rules for the rest of us, even if we collectively own the controlling share of their organisations.

But this year's banker bonus season has started early and with a bit more fury than its predecessors, probably as a result of the pain most people are feeling as earnings are squeezed and as confidence throughout most of the economy is so threadbare.

Stephen Hester is first into the stocks.

As successor to Sir Fred Goodwin, some of the notoriety of the office seems to rub off.

In the current mood of outrage and condemnation, it's easy to forget RBS's root problems had nothing to do with Hester.

Battlefield promotion

He was given what he's called a "battlefield promotion", poached from a quieter life at the top of British Land property giant, and handed the most poisonous of corporate chalices.

One aspect of that appointment is worth emphasising, particularly in response to those who see him as just another public servant, who ought to be held to the same pay freeze constraints as teachers, health service and council workers.

The key condition of taking on the job was that the Royal Bank of Scotland would be run along commercial lines. That had big implications. It meant that it would compete with similar financial institutions, not just for customers but for senior staff.

Image copyright PA
Image caption It can be forgotten that senior bankers' motivation is money

And in a market in which the skills of senior bankers, and especially investment bankers, are highly rewarded, it had to swim with the same sharks rather than shift into the tank occupied by head teachers and hospital consultants.

It was also clear from the contract offered to Hester back in October 2008 was that he would be part of that banker culture. He wasn't entering the chief executive's office in a monastic habit.

He was there because he had banking skills, a banking outlook, and as much of an understanding as anyone about what had to be done to steer RBS back to health.

What some of us seem to forget, or never quite realised, is that senior bankers are not motivated by public service. Yes, they want customers to be satisfied with the quality of service, at least sufficiently to retain them as customers.

But their motivation is money.

Moolah is the business they're in, and while they may spend on corporate social responsibility projects, it's moolah that's the measure of their success.

A couple of years ago, while interviewing Stephen Hester, I asked if he saw his role in turning round RBS as, at least partly, that of public servant.

His answer was striking for its lack of any hesitation, doubt or qualification. It was a firm 'no'.

He said around the same time that his parents told him they think he earns too much.

But the market is a strange master. Any chief executive of a huge bank who asked not to be so highly paid would sacrifice the respect of his fellow senior executives. And anyone who offers to do the job at a discount would likely lack the respect of the market.

Arm's length

Is there an alternative? Would it make any difference, for instance, if RBS were not 82% owned by the taxpayer, but 100%?

In some ways it might. Its success would not be monitored hour to hour by the market. But it wouldn't necessarily make the key difference.

That difference is how active the UK government wishes to be in its holding of the controlling stake. The decision was taken at the height of the 2008-09 financial crisis (I have to qualify it with those dates, in case there's another one on the way) to put the banks at arm's length.

In formal terms, that meant creating UK Financial Investments, occupying an office in the Treasury but monitoring its shareholding without ministers' interference.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Would Ed Miliband take direct control of bank pay if he was at 10 Downing St?

It can look quite a short arm's length, but there are legal reasons why ministers have to back off too much interference because of directors' legal responsibilities to all shareholders, including those in the minority.

And the possibility that the board, which includes Stephen Hester, could resign - a prospect now raised for the second time in three years over this issue - forces us to ask who would replace them.

People who will do ministers' bidding, to a political agenda, or people who have a clue about steering a bank back to health and into a profitable sell-off into fully private ownership?

If one board resigns, where are the replacements with banking expertise, a desire to be treated like public servants, in both pay and taking their instructions from the Treasury?

These are questions for Ed Miliband and other politicians playing the populist card. Has the Labour leader asked the advice of Alistair Darling, the Labour Chancellor who chose the arm's length model now being taken forward by the coalition government?

And in the event of the Labour leader suddenly (unexpectedly) being catapulted into 10 Downing Street, would he take direct control of the bank's pay policy?

He might not like all the consequences of doing so.

Of course, there are those, and plenty of them, who think RBS and the whole banking sector should be fully nationalised, and should respond to political influence - not only on executive pay but on lending policy.

But if that's the solution, it's worth asking how much of Britain's financial sector, its exports, and its one million or so jobs would be retained. Some, for sure, but far from all.

And if RBS's future were to become a department of government, you can wave goodbye to the £45bn of capital pumped into it in two tranches during 2008 and 2009.

Excess on Wall Street

So what can be done about banker bonuses? Asking Stephen Hester to give up his £963,000-worth of shares is merely to ask him to be a decent chap and do the decent thing. It isn't much of a policy.

The answer is surely to change the environment in the shark pool in which he's swimming. And as Philip Augur argued on BBC Radio Scotland's Newsweek Scotland this weekend, that could be government or governments intervening in the bankers' labour market.

Image copyright bbc
Image caption People with Stephen Hester's skills could find themselves a job on Wall Street

As the market is driven from the United States, then without the US government being fully signed up, that would merely put participants at a disadvantage. People with Stephen Hester's skills would soon find themselves with a job and bonus on Wall Street.

The other pressure points on bankers are from the investment banks' corporate customers or from their private shareholders, either group acting in concert to constrain the pay and bonuses excesses.

Excess, in economic terms, points to a market that's not operating efficiently - in this case too few bankers in too few investment banks, and barriers to entry for others whose competition might have been able to drive down the price of these specialist services.

It's not hard to disagree with Stephen Hester's parents, in thinking he's paid far too much. But there are far more effective ways of sorting out the problem than asking one man to do the decent thing.

Stirring the pot

Oh, and in case you're not sufficiently angered by the £963,000-worth of shares, you may not have noticed that's merely the short-term bonus, on top of the £1.2m salary (frozen for a fourth year). Stephen Hester is also in for an award from a Long-Term Incentive Plan, agreed with shareholders including UK Financial Investments.

That award is drawn from a pot of shares put aside by the bank for two years, from which the long-term bonus is paid.

The good news, for critics of bonuses - rather less so for Mr Hester - is that he failed to hit the targets necessary to get a pay-out on his work in 2009. So he's getting zero long-term bonus this time round.

But there are 8.5m shares - worth more than £2m - set aside for the chief executive's work in 2010. Depending how he does against specific targets, many of them to do with reducing the bank's risk profile, he may get a chunk of that.

And on top of the £963,000-worth of shares in his short term bonus for 2011 (that was at Wednesday's closing price, since when it's already risen to £999,000 following an uplift in share price), there's another pot of 10.1m shares. That's worth nearly £3m at current values. It's awaiting performance outcomes against targets, for decision in early 2014.

Meanwhile, we're yet to hear how big RBS's bonus pool will be for its investment banking division. A year ago, the pot for the previous year's performance was £950m, and speculation is on that falling by around half.

If it's as big a cut in pay as that, no doubt they'll have our collective sympathy.

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