Bankers’ bonuses. Necessary, a necessary evil or just evil?

A lot has been said about bankers’ bonuses in recent years, with a general view amongst the public that paid to bail out the banking system that they are excessive.

Bankers, unsurprisingly, say that without packages that include large elements of performance-related bonus, the banking industry would not attract the top talent that a complicated business needs. So goes the argument.

So who is right? The answer is simple enough; they both are.  Without bonuses, ambitious people are likely to relax, creating inefficiency. As banking is widely seen as the central nervous system of the capitalist system, lethargy in banking would hurt us all.

Yet it seems that many bankers (other than directors of the bank) had bonus systems linked only to short-term profit measures. Had they been paid in a more carefully crafted cocktail of short- and long-term measures that deterred risk taking (eg long-dated share options), then the perceived pattern of excessive risk taking for inadequate return may have been curbed. Perhaps the same discipline that affects the remuneration committee should pervade all remuneration deals.

With ambitious and aggressive people the rule is simple: WYPIWYG (what you PAY is what you get). If bankers were paid to take high risks on derivatives and not held back in pay terms for taking risk, it might be harsh to see it as their fault for doing what their remuneration package incentivised them to do.

Putting together a remuneration package for a banker without bonuses is arguably like making a cosmo cocktail without the vodka.

Speaking of which, I’m writing this on a Friday at 8.00pm. Time for a cocktail of my own. Cheers!

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