Trust me I'm a banker

  • Published

Two years ago this week, Scotland's once-proud banking history was ripped to shreds.

Facing total ruin, Royal Bank of Scotland was rescued by the government. Halifax Bank of Scotland had to be sold off to Lloyds, which in turn had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.

This was the defining point of a banking crisis which would tip the nation into its deepest recession since the 1930s.

The banks are recovering, and are even back in profit. But as tens of thousands of public sector workers fret over their jobs as the spending review looms, I wanted to know whether bankers had learned their lessons.

Had attitudes in the City - the beating heart of the financial sector - changed at all since those dark days in October 2008?

There is little doubt that the city's bonus culture contributed to the crisis, and at the time politicians were lining up to promise that things would change; no more rewards for failure, banks were being brought to heel. So has that happened?

In 2009, RBS paid £1.3bn in bonuses, while Lloyds paid a reported £200m. Both were in the red at the time.

We wanted to know more. So we submitted a series of questions to RBS and Lloyds banking Group about pay and bonuses. Remember, RBS is 83% owned by the taxpayer, Lloyds 41% - so it could be argued that we're entitled to know what they're up to.

We asked how many staff were paid bonuses of more than a million pounds, and how many were paid salaries of more than £142,500 - which is what the prime minister earns.

Despite a recent review carried out by city veteran Sir David Walker calling for more transparency in City pay structures pay, both banks said they were not prepared to disclose any more than they had to.

They would only provide information published in their annual accounts, which included the pay of their chief executives, who both turned down bonuses last year.

Earning power

RBS's Stephen Hester has a salary of about £1.2m plus £400,000 in pension entitlements. But if he meets his three year targets, his full earning potential for 2009 is £8m.

Former Chancellor Alistair Darling told me that "it was in every single person's interest in this country the bank is turned around".

But is he worth 56 times what the prime minister earns? £8m, incidentally, is twice as much as what Sir Fred Goodwin earned in his last year at the helm.

Eric Daniels of Lloyds earned a £1m salary last year and recently announced he would retire when a successor is found. It's been reported he can walk away with £13m, including his pension and long-term incentive bonuses.

Image caption,
Stephen Hester was brought in to run RBS after its government bailout.

According to Angela Knight, from the British Bankers Association, top bankers, need top wages.

She said: "Either we pay them for this extraordinarily complicated job that they have to do or we don't get those people."

Economist Will Hutton, who also advises the government on public sector pay, has a different view.

He said: "Bankers are paid much more than executives in any other walk of business life. The idea that you have to pay these people stratospheric sums of money...underwritten by the taxpayer is offensive."

RBS said it had done more than any of its competitors to change pay structure, while Lloyds said it took a prudent approach to remuneration.

'Greedy people'

During this investigation I spent a lot of time in City, and spoke to many people about banking culture, which clearly has a bad reputation.

In a poll carried out by Ipsos MORI for the BBC, we asked whether the fact that the banks were now back in profit had restored trust in bankers. Of those polled, 70% said it hadn't.

Former trader and best selling author of "Cityboy" Geraint Anderson, gave his take on why bankers seem so unpopular.

He said: "Just remember one thing, the City is full of greedy, ruthless, clever people and they will do what they can to line their pockets with no regard of the impact it has on society."

I got a real glimpse of City life when I was invited to attend Square Mile magazine's charity masked ball. I was struck by the grand nature of this affair, and even more by some of the comments of the bankers who were attending.

Image caption,
Truett Tate was the highest earning Lloyds director last year with £1.8m

Among the guests was one of the most powerful bankers in Britain, Truett Tate, group executive director of Lloyds Banking Group.

In a surprisingly frank interview, he told me that despite the economic turmoil triggered by the banking crisis, the taxpayer should be delighted with its "investment" into his bank.

Mr Tate, who was the highest earning Lloyds director last year with £1.8m, said: "There are a whole lot of people, myself included, who would love to get the kind of return on their investment that the taxpayer has made into this bank.

"They've made an investment that is making money. If you could come up with me, with an investment in the infrastructure which would have returned more for the taxpayers, I'm all ears."

In response, Will Hutton told me: "The idea that the tax-payer is waiting for the chance to buy some cheap bank shares and we are going to make some tens of billions as a consequence of that once in a lifetime opportunity, is a rather odd way of looking at what took place.

"It will take twenty years to get back to where we would have been and the loss of output is over a trillion pounds."

'Bounced back'

So what happened to the men at the helm of the banks that failed?

* Sir Fred Goodwin left RBS straight after the bail out. But his departure was eased with a pension pot of £8.3m. He's found new employment as a consultant for a leading architects firm RMJM.

* Andy Hornby at HBOS had his contract terminated. He's bounced back, and is now chief executive of Alliance boots, and raked in more than £2m in his first year.

Image caption,
Fred Goodwin (l), who left RBS after the government bailed it out, now works as a consultant for RMJM

* Gordon Pell, former deputy chief executive at RBS, retired with a £13.5m pension pot, and now works for another bank, Coutts, which is owned by RBS.

In our poll, only 16% of those who participated were satisfied at the action taken against the bankers who failed. So where is the deterrent against banks going off the rails again?

Andrew Bailey, who is currently executive director and chief cashier at the Bank of England and will head up a brand new financial regulator, said that banks should be "nervous".

He said: "They should be appropriately nervous and appropriately aware of what could be done if they go in the wrong direction. We owe it to our successors not to get back into the position that we found ourselves in, in the summer of 2007."

Trust Me I'm a Banker is due to be screened on BBC One Scotland at 1930 BST.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.