What Europe decided to do about bankers’ bonuses

En novembre 2008, des personnalités comme Nicolas Sarkozy et Gordon Brown s’étaient entendues sur la nécessité de réguler le monde de la finance afin de canaliser les « apprentis sorciers de la finance folle ». Un accord semble enfin avoir été trouvé. En effet, le parlement européen a voté dernièrement une loi sur le plafonnement des bonus dans les banques. La Grande-Bretagne semble pourtant ne pas partager le point de vue de ses voisins européens.


Last Wednesday, the European Parliament voted a law that prevents bankers from receiving bonuses higher than their salaries if a bank’s shareholders explicitly agree. Generally, bonuses are given at the end of the year to reward the performances of the prior year. As a result, they have encouraged traders to invest in things that could generate big profits right away, but which are most of the time very risky and devastating after a few years. European policymakers are now imposing those new restrictions on bankers’ bonuses in an attempt to reduce incentives to take imprudent risks.
But the text will come into effect in January 2014, and only to bonuses that will be paid next year. The main elements of the political agreement are unchanged compared with the compromise which was reached on March 5th and which had the support of 26 of the 27 EU members. Indeed, because of the refusal of the British, who explained that they were afraid of the pernicious effects of such a measure on their financial system, the European finance minister agreed to keep on discussing for a few more weeks to try and reach an unanimous agreement, to no avail. According to the European Union, such a measure could prevent a new crisis.


The logic of capping bonuses looks appealing. Indeed, if bankers take a big gamble that pays off, they get a huge bonus. But if it goes horribly wrong, they face only limited downsides. Furthermore, in the present economic circumstances, it would be unfair to give so much money to bankers whereas many people often need to have two jobs to live decently. A lot of people have seen their standard of living decrease and don’t understand why traders earn millions of pounds. This law would drive-up fixed salaries.
But on the other hand, bank bosses say they are held to ransom by star traders who threaten to walk off to a rival if they believe they are not compensated adequately. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, dismissed the bonus cap as “self-defeating”. As for him, “the City fears the rules will drive away talent and restrict growth”. Such a measure would also limit banks’ ability to cut costs in a downturn. For instance, pay has decreased sharply since the financial crisis. CEBR, a consultancy, reckons that the total bonus pool paid out to London-based bankers will fall from a peak of £11.6 billion in 2008 to £1.6 billion this year. That sort of flexibility can help banks to preserve capital in a crisis. However, it won’t be possible anymore with the measure. Furthermore, the main problem is not the bonuses, but also corruption within the banking sector, as shown by the Libor scandal. Instead of deferring the blame on bonuses, measures should be taken to limit corruption and supervise banks.


George Osborne, Britain’s finance minister, was unable to block the measure despite arguing that it will simply drive up base salaries and add rigidity to the banking system. Once again, Great Britain doesn’t seem to agree with the rest of the European Union. This new law could even encourage Britons to turn into themselves as they are more than ever euroskeptic.

Elora BARETTE & Justine GAZUIT


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