MyDaily Debate: City Bonuses Are Back But Will The Banks Ever Pay?

15/09/2011 19:58 | Updated 22 May 2015

If you can't remember the big news that happened on this day three years ago, it's not really a surprise. A lot has happened since – and it suits those in power that our collective amnesia about this major event remains intact.

City bonuses are back: will the banks never pay?Photo: PA

Let me jog your memory: it was on 15 September 2008 that 4,500 Lehman Brothers staff in Canary Wharf, and tens of thousands more around the world, were told they had lost their jobs. The American investment bank filed for bankruptcy after losing billions of dollars on risky investments in so-called sub-prime mortgages – loans to people on low incomes or with poor credit histories who, surprise surprise, were then unable to repay them.

The collapse of Lehman's marked the start of what many economists regard as the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Apparently rock-solid financial institutions collapsed, stock markets around the world plunged and national governments found themselves bailing out banks in a desperate effort to keep them afloat.

There was a period of public outrage. Bank chiefs had cause to worry, temporarily, about hostile media coverage. There was political hand-ringing. And then the newspapers moved on to other stories and somehow we bought the new government's line that it was the swollen state and those pesky benefit scroungers that brought our economy to its knees and not the greedy and irresponsible behaviour of the financial sector.

So where are we now? The cost of living is soaring ever higher; 2.5 million people are unemployed. Meanwhile, in the City, it's business as usual. Bonuses, which for a while were about as seemly as karaoke at a funeral, are back. A whopping £14bn was paid out in City bonuses last year – up from £12billion in 2008 – and a study this week revealed that those at the top are awarding themselves above inflation pay rises. Not much contrition from a sector that still owes us taxpayers more than £450billion in bail-out money.

Not one of the bosses who failed to stop their employees gambling with our money has paid any real price: no prison for them, only tidy pension pots and plum advisory jobs. Contrast that with the 170 children and young people now in custody for taking part in last month's riots – the majority of whom had no previous contact with the criminal justice system.

On Monday, the long-awaited report by the Independent Banking Commission recommended that banks should be forced to "ring-fence" their high street operations (those that deal with our current accounts, savings and mortgages) from their riskier investment activities (those dealing in shares, bonds and obscure financial products). This is a long way from the radical reforms that might have been expected: the break-up of the banks, for example, or significant restraints on pay and bonuses. Yet even these proposals were met with howls of protest from banking lobbyists. "Banks will move abroad!", they cried – the same threat always implied to oppose tax on high earners.

For its part, the government has officially welcomed the recommendations and promised to implement them. But not until, wait for it, 2019 – long after the next election. Talk about kicking them into the long grass. Forgive my cynicism, but I'll believe it when I see it.


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