How to regulate virtue

The financial industry needs to change its ways, says Merryn Somerset Webb. And that means reconnecting with its clients.

From this year, new EU regulations are to limit bonuses paid in the financial sector to 100% of individual salaries (or 200% if shareholders agree). The idea is first to limit the overall compensation paid out to big bankers and traders, and second to try and rein in the risky behaviour that is encouraged by short-term profit-related incentives.

No one expected the banks to take lying down this infringement of their right to grotesquely overpay people with state-underwritten profits. And they aren't.

This week we found out how they intend to change to keep things exactly the same. They are as was predictable going to raise the fixed pay of their staff using a system of allowances that can be raised or cut depending on a variety of factors. Just like bonuses!

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So, says the FT, Stuart Gulliver, the chief executive of HSBC, will now get £1.7m in fixed allowances on top of his £1.25m salary this year. Add his allowable bonuses to that, and he should be able to keep taking home the £8m he got in 2013 regardless of the diktats of the meanies across the Channel.

The announcement was made in the group's annual report at the same time as it "warned that payouts to investors would be flat for the first nine months of this year".

This brings me to a speech Bank of England chief Mark Carney made early last year to a group of business students in Ontario. Virtue, he told them, "cannot be regulated even the strongest supervision cannot guarantee good conduct".

If we want the future of the financial industry to be less like the past, the "rediscovery of core values" is essential. And this, far from a matter for the regulators, is "a question of individual responsibility". He is right, of course, but how do you get the industry to take on that responsibility?

Finance isn't supposed to be an end in itself. As Carney said later, it is supposed to be a means to promote investment, innovation, growth and prosperity. Banking should be "fundamentally about intermediation, connecting borrowers and savers in the real economy".

But that's not how our bankers see it anymore: they don't see themselves as servicing the real economy, but as being the "apex of financial activity". Not our words Carney's.

Carney sees client connection' as one answer to this problem: endlessly complex product chains mean that most financiers have little contact with their end client. Teachers see exam results, farmers see crops. But bankers only see numbers. So they miss out on the feelings of satisfaction that should come from helping clients and so only see rewards in terms of money.

That's something for big shareholders and boards to think about and fix. Perhaps some of them need to look at how greed and inequality have been dealt with in the past, and take action before the general public demands Byzantine-style measures. See this article by Peter Frankopan for more.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.