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Monday, 13 October 2008

Bonus boys face big squeeze

LONDON - WHILE world leaders argue over how to avert a global financial meltdown, politicians and commentators seem able to agree on one thing: the era of the mega-bonus is over, for now at least.

Even a former insider who for years benefitted from the eye-popping bonuses on offer in the City - London's financial district - agrees they promote the kind of risk-taking which helped produce the current crisis.

'I sold my soul to the devil working in the City, and I got a damn good price for it,' Mr Geraint Anderson, a former investment bank analyst and now a columnist for a free London afternoon paper, told AFP.

But he admits he 'became greedier, more money obsessed,' and ultimately realised he had to get out - which he finally did this this year, when he wrote a no-holds-barred book about the drug- and booze-fuelled bonus culture.

It would appear Britain's leaders agree there is a problem - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who as chancellor oversaw a decade-long economic boom fuelled by rivers of cash flowing through the City - has made his views clear.

'I think we've got to look at where there has been irresponsible behaviour, and I've said for some time that we need reforms in the system. We've got to clean up the financial system,' he said last week.

Both the leaders of Britain's two biggest opposition parties have called for a ban on bonuses for senior executives at banks who make use of a government rescue package announced last week.

Of course one might expect politicians to pick on the mega-bucks bonus boys - and it is, everwhemingly, young men - amid the current turmoil.

As people struggle to pay basic bills, there is little public sympathy for their plight.

But finance minister Alistair Darling insists there needs to be a clampdown - and has made discussing executive remuneration one of the conditions tied to banks being able to access the 500-billion-pound (S$1.3 trillion) plan.

'It's essential that bonuses don't result in people being encouraged to take on more and more risk without understanding the damage that might be done, not just to their bank, but to the rest of us in the wider economy,' he said in a recent speech.

In Mr Anderson's view, the problem is not so much the size of the bonuses - Barclays President Bob Diamond pocketed around 40 million pounds in bonuses in 2006 and 2007 combined - though he concedes they do encourage rule bending or breaking.

To him, the more serious issue is the structure of bonuses, specifically the fact that a large portion is typically handed over in cash.

'You get most of your bonus in a single go, most of it in cash, so you therefore don't care about the long-term implications of your actions... What we need is a system of renumeration which encourages longer-term thinking.'

'If banks can be encouraged, across the world, to basically give you bonuses that crystallise over a three or four-year period, then you are more likely to consider the long-term implications of your actions,' he said.

Mr Darling - who spent this weekend in Washington in crisis talks with his G7 and other counterparts - echoed this view in a recent speech.

'Bonuses should encourage good long-term decisions, not short-term reckless ones,' told the ruling Labour Party's annual conference in Manchester last month.

In the short-term, at least, bonuses seem to be on the way down - research published last week by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), a think-tank, estimated that total bonuses awarded in London would drop to 3.6 billion pounds in 2008, down from their 2006 peak of 8.8 billion pounds.

'This is not the end of the bonus system,' CEBR's chief economist said.

'But with shareholders, likely to include the government in some cases, and the FSA (Financial Services Authority) breathing down employers' necks and a labour market with plenty of people available, it is unlikely that we will see bonuses paid on the scale of the past four years in the forseeable future.'

Mr Anderson, who was awarded a half-million-pound bonus in his last year as an analyst at investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort acknowledges that changing the bonus culture will be difficult.

'If we try to impose this system in London, then people will move to New York - geography is less important than perhaps it used to be,' he said.

And what of the future for investment banks and the bonus system? The 36-year-old is gloomy.

'In my opinion, Wall Street and the City have been like Wild West casinos in the past few years,' said Mr Anderson, who previously wrote an anonymous column for the Evening Standard newspaper in the British capital.

'The party's over now, and the hangover's going to be really nasty.' -- AFP

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