Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bashing Bankers

And he wasn't even a banker*

Now it's turned out greed maybe ain't quite so good after all, nobody is going to defend the boys and girls who've been rinsing it at the trough. And nobody can be surprised that grandstanding politicos of every complexion have been queuing up to demand Action.

But what action exactly?

An incomes policy for bankers? A ban on bonuses? A cap?

The central casting trade union leaders speaking in Manchester are demanding it, but government ministers have taken fright. They presumably realise that with financial services accounting for nearly 10% of GDP, the City directly employing 350,000, and their post-election jobs to think of, bashing bankers right now might not be the greatest idea.

And incomes policies for bankers are most unlikely to work: bankers are far too smart/greedy to get boxed in by the kind of lumbering one-size-fits-all restrictions beloved of Whitehall.

As Tyler may have said before, back in the early 80s he joined a City merchant bank. Maggie had abolished Labour's incomes policy, but its marks were still visible. The bankers were all wedged with non-cash benefits specifically designed to get round the restrictions of incomes policy - company cars, heavily subsidised mortgages, enhanced employer pension contributions, some even had their kids' private school fees paid by the bank.

And when it comes to bonuses, the possibilities are endless: the Major's brainy friend Herr Docktor Professor Franz Kuntz has already dusted off his Super-Enhanced Kruegerrand Roll-up Fund (Cayman) for distribution to needy bankers.

No wonder the government has handed the problem to the FSA. Somehow, they will find a way of regulating bank bonuses without having an incomes policy per se.

How? New FSA Chairman Adair Turner tried to explain last night. His idea is that the FSA will review a bank's remuneration policies as part of its risk monitoring activities; if they decide employees are being incentivised to do too many risky deals, they'll impose tougher capital requirements on the bank, so there will be a cost.

Er... yeeeesss. It's one of those classic ideas that sounds OK in a vague arm waving kind of way, but hasn't a prayer of getting past the detail devil. Especially when you remember that this is the same FSA that was "asleep at the wheel" as the Crock kereered towards the cliff edge (see previous blogs for just how rubbish the FSA actually was - eg here).

Everyone now agrees that bank regulation must be tightened asap. But the need is to protect us against systemic calamity by further restricting the riskiness of the banks' balance sheets. Bashing bankers might be fun, but it's a dangerous distraction.

*Footnote - don't Wall Street's 1987 salary numbers now sound quaintly small - $200K pa for a top US executive? In recent times, a junior Wharf trader wouldn't wipe his bottom on $200K.

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