Jealousy and anger are powerful emotions. When mixed they make a Labour conference.
The Democrats have a point when they say they will not vote for a massive bailout if some of the money rewards shareholders of the banks in trouble, and if some pays large bonuses to the executives who got it wrong. Many in the UK have a point when they say some bankers bonuses are too large and not based on success.
So let’s consider some possible bonus payments. I would welcome your views on the following bonus awards.
Mr Canny, the Hedge Fund Manager, bought lots of oil shares as the oil price surged, made much bigger profits than most funds, and sold out near the top. He earned a large bonus based on the year’s performance to June 2008.
Mr Lucky, the Hedge Fund Manager, also made super profits in oil shares in the year to June 2008, and also pocketed a large bonus for the performance. He continued to hold them in the fund, losing a lot of the gains over the next few weeks. He keeps his bonus.
Mr Sharp, the Hedge Fund Manager, made huge profits out of selling financial shares short over the last year. He is now banned by law from doing this, so his fund has banked its profits and gone into cash. He was paid a large bonus for the performance.
Mr Nice, the Mortgage Manager, made a lot of mortgages available to first time buyers 2005-7, responding to government encouragement to make more long term mortgages available. Because he sold so many more mortgages, he was paid a large bonus in each of those two years. Today he sells very few mortgages. When he sold his mortgages to people his bank thought all but 1% of them would be to people who carried on paying the interest. They now think it might be 5% that go wrong. This will mean the bank loses on the mortgages he sold. Mr Nice’s bonus did not relate to how well the mortgages do in the longer term, but just how many he sold. Mr Nice himself was not responsible for assessing credit worthiness or risk.
Mr Chancer, the Investment Banker, packaged mortgages up into funds and sold them on through securitisation. He was paid large bonuses for all the fees he earned the bank by doing this. Unfortunately his bank decided to keep some of these securities on its own book. They are now worth perhaps only 25p for every pound they originally paid for them, meaning the bank has now made an overall loss on this business. Mr Chancer keeps his past bonuses.
The problem with several of these cases is one of timing. In the year of the sales achievement or the rises in the shares owned, the accounts tell everyone that something good has happened and that the employees should have a share in it. Subsequently, in several cases, losses are made that offset or wipe out the profits or revenues that were earned in the earlier year. Only two cases represent more permanent profit – the cases of Mr Canny and Mr Sharp. Both were doing things many people dislike. One was helping fuel a boom in oil and energy prices. The other was making profits out of helping push the price down of leading banks.
There are several ways a bank or other financial institution can deal with the timing problems of the other cases. They could offer the bonus in an escrow account, which only pays out sometime later if no problems emerge with the business written that involves the bank in loss. Alternatively, the bonus can be issued in the form of shares or rights to shares, and again there would need to be a holding period to see if all was well with the business.If the busienss did lose then the shares would go down in value.
The government has held out the possibility of regulating bonuses. The FSA are right to say they cannot undertake to review every individual’s bonus and decide whether it is fair and reasonable or not. It is too much work, could divert people to offshore centres, and would be subject to clever devices to get around the letter of the rules. Banks and financial institutions have to be responsible to their shareholders for this matter. Shareholders and some Directors have been remiss in allowing the bonus culture to become excessive in some cases.
We hear that the regulator may counter bonus schemes that it judges to be too generous by demanding more capital. That may be the least bad way to be involved, given the current political mood.
Would you regulate bonuses? If so, which ones? And how would you regulate them? The devil is in the detail.