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Have the bankers learned their lesson?

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 16, 2014

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Answering questions at a conference on EU reform in Westminster yesterday, Chancellor George Osborne said the Government had done more than any to bring the banking system back under control, to regulate banking properly, to ring-fence the retail banks and make sure bankers are properly accountable and "if things go wrong the money that they were given can be taken off them".

He may be right. But the more important question is this: have banks changed their attitude since the crash of 2008? We say, in a word, no. The truth is there has been no real shift in the approach taken by financial institutions towards pay. Public sector workers may be forced to endure wage freezes; much of Britain might be living in straitened times; but in the City, the gravy train keeps rolling along.

The EU wants bonuses to be capped at 50 per cent of salary, or 100 per cent with shareholder approval. But if you thought for one moment that the banks, mindful of such an EU directive and the prevailing public mood, would cut back on their mega-payouts, you would surely be mistaken. Far from resembling a hair-shirt philosophy, the atmosphere in the Square Mile ahead of this year's bonus payouts is almost one of defiance.

If this really was the end for the seven-figure payment to someone, who, after all, has merely been doing their job, then we could let it pass. Soon enough, the giant bonus would be consigned to a history littered with wild risk-taking, cynical wheezes and financial disaster. But so entrenched is bankers' belief that they really are special, that they really do deserve an earnings structure wholly out of kilter with the rest of society, the chances of calling time on the bonanza are looking slim, particularly if this year is any guide. It now seems the top performers can expect bonuses as much as 15 per cent higher this year than last.

Nor will this be the last hurrah in the face of encroaching officialdom. Right now, there will be folk in the City drawing up clever ways of ensuring the bumper pay day remains. Maybe base salaries will soar so the EU's bonus restriction will apply to a much larger number. Or some other tactic will be found.

Whatever the banks tell us, they cannot justify these awards. Worse, bonuses are often rewards for high-risk behaviour that, en masse, can threaten the stability of the economy. Bankers' sense of entitlement must change. They must become servants again, and reduce their earnings accordingly.

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