Archive for the ‘The industry’ Category

Bonuses

April 9, 2010

People misunderstand bonuses. They resent them, too, but there again I resent Ant and Dec, I don’t think they should be banned (although perhaps taxed out of existence?)

I think the best way to tackle this subject is with some numbers, since facts always seem to be a bit lacking in the bonus debate. My salary is just under £75,000 per year. As long as I stay employed I can count on that, and that is the number I would be appraised on for credit-worthiness and so on. It is, I think, very high and is almost £30,000 higher than the average London salary for someone of my age and qualifications. I am always flabbergasted when I see it written down. I have never really overcome my childhood sense of money, when £1,000 seemed unimaginable. Given that when I grew up my parents were poor, money has become something which is both special and yet strangely unreal. Money, most of all, means freedom from worry.

One of the bizarre ironies of the credit crunch is that my salary was a lot less a year ago. Yup, you got it, banking is one of the few (perhaps only) industry to increase salaries in the face of the global downturn. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, some banks have been trying to take advantage of the situation and have been hiring aggressively. Barclays Capital and Nomura are the most commonly mentioned names here, but there are others. Meanwhile, organisations such as RBS and UBS have been desperately been trying to keep hold of their staff.

This has forced those organisations on the defence to increase salaries in order to keep people, and those who are poaching to offer above-market salaries. This doesn’t just apply to the superstars, but to everyone. Need a good replacement for that person who has just departed from your team? Try RBS. In turn, those organisations that are losing people will probably do a salary review and decide they need to increase salaries across the board. Those that have been poaching people will need to do the same thing – it’s not good to poach someone and then have them paid more than their peers.

Second, banks have pre-empted bonus taxes by increasing base salary. The idea is they will pay less bonus but keep people’s total compensation at the same level. So bonus taxes may well decrease bonuses, but they do cause wage inflation.

Combined, some people have done very nicely from the credit crunch; and in the light of honesty I have to number myself amongst them. Others, though, have lost their jobs (employment within the industry is still much lower) or been largely unaffected, so the love has not been shared as equally as some may indicate.

Finally, people have grown much more wary of stock options (typically forming a large portion of the bonus) since stock options in Bear Stearns and Lehman turned to dust.

On top of that base salary, my employer may choose to pay me a bonus. While no doubt I am extremely loveable, this is not a present. Nor is it a performance bonus in the traditional sense, i.e. something which is correlated to pre-agreed targets. If I do well, my department does well, my division does well and the entire business does well, then the bonus will be at its maximum. However, the employer also has a certain amount of discretion: they may not pay a bonus at all if the organisation needs to conserve cash, or they may prefer one person if their individual performance demands it, or if it is felt they may leave. There is no strict formula. Plus, the firm pays by accumulating a bonus pot over the course of the year (i.e. stashing away money from their revenue), so the pot is shared – one person gets more, then logically another gets less. Typically a zero (a donut) is a polite indication that you are no longer welcome and should consider employment elsewhere, unless the firm is doing badly, in which case everyone gets a zero.

My bonus is in the 20% to 30% of my base salary. For senior people, their bonuses will be many times their base salary.

Base+bonus = total compensation. Banks never speak in terms of the two separately. Nor does the taxman. An increase in base may even mean a decrease in bonus in order to prevent the total compensation increasing too sharply.

Put it this way: bonuses allow my employer to cut my salary. One year I may be paid one amount, the next that could be cut dramatically, the year after it may increase dramatically. The more senior the individual, the greater the proportion of their salary is in the form of a bonus, which in turn means more flexibility an employer has to trim their compensation down to the minimum.

Amongst junior employees (i.e. the vast majority) bonuses are typically viewed with some mistrust. Not that people turn them down, but no mortgage lender or credit rating agency looks at your bonus. Plus, banks will avoid increasing base salary unless they’re forced to and prefer to give salary increases within the bonus – typically so they have the option of taking it away again next year. Anyone who is smart stashes their bonus away until they have saved enough to live without a job for a few months … redundancy is a pretty sure thing in this industry. My own base salary once stayed fixed for three years in a row, although my bonus suggested very real pay rises. The fourth year my employer did badly and I got zero bonus, and the fifth, so after five years of employment I was essentially on a graduate’s salary.

This explains why RBS was so defensive of handing out bonuses to its over-performing investment bank division. To hand out a zero was both an open invitation to leave, but also would have been seen by its employees as a salary cut.

I would never argue that bankers are worth what they are paid (“worth” is such a difficult term to pin down), in the same way I wouldn’t argue about footballers’ salaries. What I would say is that the bonus is part of an unspoken deal: when times are bad we take pay cuts, when times are good then pay increases compensate for the flexibility and the previous down times. It is, in effect, an open agreement to accept unilateral compensation cuts. Perhaps we need a union?

On the other hand, perhaps it just further reflects the risk-and-reward culture of the city?

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MPs urge City boards to close gender gap

April 3, 2010

» MPs urge City boards to close gender gap

A report by the Treasury select committee finds “disappointingly few” women on City of London boards and evidence of a “significant” pay gap that is wider than elsewhere in the business world.

“The pay gap exists at entry level,” said John McFall, chairman of the committee, which will monitor the situation during the next parliament.

It’s a worrying situation. The idea of banks being full of alpha males who are casually bigoted is a widespread one, as is the idea that the hunger to win, the appetite for risk and bigotry are uniquely male traits. Harriet Harman’s comments that Lehman Brothers would not have failed had it not been Lehman Sisters is a classic example of reverse sexism based upon false information – shortly before its failure, Lehman’s CFO was a woman, Erin Callan*.

There certainly are financial firms which are still in the dark ages (as there are for any industry), but most banks are on the extreme end of the PC scale and obsessed with the idea of “talent” – their entire view on how they pay is that they are looking to hire the best of the best. The idea that a male graduate employee and a female graduate employee will be paid different things sounds wrong (not to say illegal), so something is going on within these statistics.

Banks, though, do not lend themselves to flexibility. However much they try, they are a slave to the financial markets which have fixed opening hours of 8am to 4.30pm. If traders need to do additional work they can either hope for a quiet market, or do it from 6am to 5.30pm. Not everyone is a trader, not everyone has the same restrictions (I don’t), but the hours of the market drive many other considerations and the more senior people get, they more restrictive those market hours become.

One should always be wary of an industry trying to defend itself against charges of prejudice by claiming special status. On the other hand, neat but untrue stereotypes are something else to be wary of, particularly when used as a basis for policy.

* To be fair to Erin, she wasn’t in the job very long and probably not long enough to make a difference.

Tory leader David Cameron details plan for bank tax

March 20, 2010

» Tory leader David Cameron details plan for bank tax

Opportunist. Still, some kind of levy seems only fair, although the assumption that only banks are too big to fail continues to baffle me (AIG? General Motors?)

I’m assuming the word “details” here is some kind of joke. As is the reminder that David Cameron is leader of the conservative party.

What really confuses me though is this:

Treasury sources say Mr Darling favours a tax over an untouchable insurance premium because he fears that banks could feel they were insured against the consequences of their actions and take even greater risks.

It’s analagous to saying “we oppose people getting car insurance because it just increases the risk that they’ll drive carelessly”. Although I suppose we all had so much fun in the last big bank bankruptcy that another one would be so much fun. Somehow, a chancellor favouring a tax always gives me a certain amount of cynicism.

High rolling risk and low rolling reality

March 8, 2010

Two important news stories, both of which were largely ignored:

» Hedge funds do not pose systemic risk, concludes FSA

» FSA plays down prop trading impact

Two well known villains of the finance world – hedge funds and prop traders – seem a lot less, well, villainous after the FSA did some investigation of them.

Goldman and Greece

February 23, 2010

… and I ain’t talkin’ about the musical.

There was an interesting article by the BBC’s Robert Peston on what financial services Goldman offered the Greek government. The services themselves are pretty dubious, giving the Greek government little real benefit aside from reducing its on-book debt. Even Goldman do not seem to pretend that it was anything other than, ahem, financial engineering.

Peston’s question was: is it ethical.

The answer is: probably not. But ethics are troublesome, and I don’t mean troublesome in that “oh dear that stops us making lots of money” way, but in that “oh dear ethics is inherently based upon a point of view and therefore is difficult to capture in an abstract sense which can be applied equally to all parties and all cases” way. Typically, clients’ transactions are judged in terms of “but would their or our government think this a bit dodgy” kind of way (a test the Greek trades would have failed). But when there is no government it becomes a bit of a tougher test to apply.

“Efficiency” is a key selling point of any financial product; typically that means the product is easier to manage, has lower risk, has lower transaction costs and, sometimes, less tax. In a Daily Mail sort of way this must  seem unethical – but this is no different to a retail bank saying “you can have an ISA (which is tax free) or a savings account (which isn’t)”. Is it wrong for that bank to help its customers minimise their tax bill?

Goldman, presumably, felt the emphasis was on the Greek government. Interestingly, their ethics don’t seem to be under debate.

Longevity forever

February 23, 2010

» Long live longevity

Back in the heady days of 2006, some experts were predicting that London would become the centre of a huge new global market in trading the “longevity risk” faced by pension funds. It could eventually outstrip the huge credit derivatives market, they said.

Investment banks got very excited about it. But nothing much happened. In recent months, however, there have been a number of big longevity insurance deals that could change things.

Yesterday, BMW’s UK arm revealed it had bought insurance from Deutsche Bank’s Abbey Life that will protect it against the risk that the 60,000 members of its pension scheme live longer than expected.

Hmmmmm, I foresee a financial product called a longevity swap.

This is how financial engineering starts: a specific requirement which gets resold and resold and resold. What is more depressing is that most people will think of these securities as “complex financial engineering”, an almost wilful misunderstanding of them. Yet just today I was watching a very nice advertisement hosted by that very nice Michael Parkinson about some very nice life assurance product (I was ill, if anyone was wondering what I was doing) where people paid a very nice regular amount per month and, after two years of paying, were assured a very nice life assurance payment on their death.

Insurance is all about risk, and so are the financial markets – measuring it, controlling it, charging for it. And generally, for a purpose (admittedly a purpose which can later by absorbed by the larger world of speculation). Financial products such as derivatives and swaps did not come into life for no apparent reason. It’s a point I always feel is underplayed: these fancy financial products are useful to someone.

The hours

February 12, 2010

“The Hours” was a charming little film about Virgina Woolf, a dramatisation of a (in my opinion) less charming book. That is not what I am talking about.

Banks tend to invest a lot in individual employees (or, if you prefer, give them disgusting perks and pay, flying in the face of common sense and public opinion and assuredly ushering-in the end of civilisation as we know it), but with it, many would assume, comes some nasty hours. There is an element of truth to this: European markets open at 8am, so getting in between 7am and 8am is sensible. Ending work at 6pm means a bare minimum 50 hour week, with 55 hours seeming more likely. For the past week my working day has got to a rather silly 13hrs, which would make a 65 hour week (assuming 8 hrs of sleep, that’s a rather depressing 87.5% of time spent in the office).

There is a temptation to see this in a “long hours for big rewards” sense, but I doubt it is that simple. It’s not as if we’re paid by the hour.

Nor is it about being a young person’s game: I am the oldest in my team and the others were out of the door at 6pm on the dot (albeit, this could be about them having a life and me being a sad, old git).

So what is it about?

Christ, if only I knew then I could isolate it, find it somewhere else and leave everything else behind.

I strongly suspect it’s about a job well done. But that is nowhere near evil enough. So perhaps its about my plans to take over the world (possibly starting with Belgium).

Hector Sants to step down from top FSA post

February 9, 2010

» Hector Sants to step down from top FSA post

The FSA faced criticism that it failed to prevent the credit crisis by not restricting risk-taking at banks such as Northern Rock, which built up huge liabilities.

Mr Sants led the fightback and oversaw an overhaul of banking regulation, saying banks “should be very frightened” of the regulator.

I think it is only regulators who think that the regulated do not fear them. On the other hand, I fear a toddler wandering around with a automatic machine gun for a teddy bear, it doesn’t mean I am in awe of their judgement.

Regulators are basically a bunch of people trying to control a system they have never experienced and do not understand. Occasionally bankers all get together and complain about:

  1. The regulator never actually doing anything, seriously, if you follow regulation very carefully and studiously (and spend a lot of money on it) then you get really tetchy when other people don’t and seem to get away with it scot-free;
  2. Them never understanding anything;
  3. How much worse than the FSA all the European regulators are;
  4. The lack of firm decisions;
  5. How much data we submit which is blatantly ignored.

Except we don’t like to say anything because you never quite know how the regulator is going to respond. And, really, we’re very British in that we don’t like to say anything (but, tsk, do you see what they’re wearing). Besides, that teddy bear might go off.

I may be a banker, but HE’S a journalist

February 5, 2010

I am a banker; I am scum. This is a given.I have accepted it. I am no longer in the closet. Others, though, remain there.

Two interesting examples of interactions with journalists (financial journalists, I have yet to come to the attention of the tabloid press) that our corporate communications department had …

“So, rumour has it you’re going to buy bank ‘X’.”
“We do not comment on this kind of market rumour.”
“So that’s a ‘yes’.”
“No, it’s a reflection of the fact that we don’t comment on this kind of market rumour.”
“So that’s definitely a yes. We’re going to print it.”
“Errrr …”
“Byeee.”
“Look, you really shouldn’t print it.”
“That’s definitely a yes.”
“You shouldn’t print it because it’s completely, utterly, unambiguously false. You’ll harm your reputation, our share price, artificially inflate the price of the stock, mislead the market and generally cause nothing but harm.”
“But I’ve written it now.”

And …

“So, we’re releasing this new product.”
“Sounds good.”
“Planning the press release next week.”
“I’m out next week.”
“Ri-i-i-i-ight. So could someone else write it?”
“No.”
“Would you feel comfortable with us giving the story to another newspaper?”
“No. I’ll write a very negative story when I’m back.”
“So, we’ll delay the go-live.”

I do not think anyone actually thinks journalists are nice people, but I suspect most people think they tell the truth. Well they do. If it’s useful. Otherwise they, errr, fill in the gaps. Truth is so last century. Even this, I suspect, is not a surprise to most people.

What is surprising is how riled we do get about what the press reports. Given that significant proportions of it are untruth, manipulation, distortion or taken out-of-context it does surprise me that we bother.

Paulson repeats claims that Britain ‘screwed’ US over Lehman rescue

February 1, 2010

» Paulson repeats claims that Britain ‘screwed’ US over Lehman rescue

In On the Brink, the first book by a key player in America’s $700 billion banks bailout, Mr Paulson concentrates on the crazy months surrounding Lehman’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008.

Barclays negotiated to buy Lehman during the weekend before the bank’s collapse, but the talks fell apart after both countries put up obstacles to a rescue deal. The British bank eventually bought Lehman out of Chapter 11.

Yes, all those barriers. Surely buying the firm that is about to be the world’s biggest bankruptcy is not really that big a deal? Do we really need to vote on it?

Not being a shareholder, it’s hard to speak on their behalf. One of the few things I own is this laptop – if it had decided to buy Lehman Brothers (and, let’s face it, that would be weird in so many ways) then I might feel some resentment at not being consulted, but then my laptop screws me over in all kinds of ways so it wouldn’t surprise me if it was planning a short squeeze (oo-er) on Goldman as I write. Perhaps I should have a say, But then I am just the owner.

It is odd, a few years ago people thought Paulson was machinating on behalf of Goldman Sachs. Now it seems he was just a nutter.