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Banker Bonuses Are a Pre-Coronavirus Thing

Elisa Martinuzzi

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Financial regulators are applying all of the lessons of the 2008 credit crisis at record speed. In the past few weeks, they’ve worked with central banks to pump liquidity into markets and to make it easier for banks to lend. It’s essential now that lenders keep providing money to companies and households whose incomes have evaporated in the Covid-19 lockdowns. If the banks stop functioning, what hope for the rest of the economy?

The next chapter in European regulators’ crisis playbook is ensuring that the banks don’t hand much of their excess capital to investors or keep paying hefty bonuses to senior staff. Supervisors are trying to make sure that financial firms remain solid by easing their capital rules, thereby freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars — that places a heavy burden on the banks to act responsibly. Shares in British banks, including HSBC Holdings Plc and Barclays Plc, fell sharply on Wednesday after they halted dividends at the Bank of England’s request.

Regulators are also preempting a popular backlash by discouraging cash bonuses to bankers. This makes perfect sense, given the support that lenders have already received by way of looser regulation and state loan guarantees.

As we’ve heard from supervisors and banking executives in recent weeks, banks — for now — remain part of the solution to the unprecedented economic shock, rather than the problem. This isn’t 2008.

The excessive banker pay that fueled the risk binge in the run-up to the Lehmans meltdown is still fresh in people’s minds. What’s more, during the global financial crisis, banks often took too long to suspend dividends and buybacks, leaving themselves thinly capitalized as losses piled up and hastening the need for government bailouts. Excessive pay during and soon after the crisis, including at bailed-out institutions, rightly infuriated the taxpayers that were left footing the bill.

More than a dozen years after the financial crisis, a number of Europe’s biggest lenders — Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, ABN Amro Bank NV and Commerzbank AG — are still at least partly state owned. Little surprise then that the U.K. regulator “expects banks not to pay any cash bonuses to senior staff, including all material risk takers,” while the European Banking Authority is urging firms to pay conservative bonuses and consider deferring awards for a longer period and in shares.

It could be worse. While bankers won’t be able to cash in on their deferred compensation from previous years’ share awards after stocks plunged, they will have already received their 2019 variable cash compensation by now, and they’ll have plenty of time to prepare for next year.

Take the 1,700 traders and bankers at Barclays, who’ll be affected by the measures. About 45% of their average pay of 825,000 pounds ($1 million) consists of fixed pay, 22% comes from share awards, and 23% is a cash bonus (of which 58% is deferred), according to Citigroup Inc. analysts. While cash is king — especially during an economic crisis — getting more of that pay package in shares wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster, even if people had to wait a few years to sell. Assuming stocks don’t bounce back too far from their current levels, bankers might be getting a lot of very cheap stock in 2021.

And however painful the hit, regulators are probably just insisting on something that the markets will probably take care of over the rest of the year anyway. The first quarter may have been a bumper three months for trading in financial markets because of all of the volatility, activity could well be subdued over the coming quarters as the recession really hits. That would depress bonuses anyway. 

The very best financiers will expect to see their fixed pay rise to sweeten the blow, but for most of the thousands of bankers and traders fortunate enough to keep their jobs, lavish compensation will be a thing of the past. The crisis will be as Darwinian for investment banking as it is for every other pocket of the economy. Hanging on to your chair will be your 2021 bonus.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Elisa Martinuzzi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance. She is a former managing editor for European finance at Bloomberg News.

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