Mark Steel: Forget benefit rorts, what about bonuses?

February 9, 2014
How useless does a banker have to be before they don’t get a bonus?

I wonder how useless you have to be as a banker before they don’t give you a bonus.

If you turned up for work drunk on Special Brew and Dubonnet, and wet yourself over the computers causing the FTSE to short circuit, bankrupting Brazil and forcing the defence ministry to pawn its tanks at a Cash Converters in Southend, maybe they’d say: “You get just half a million this year, until you wipe yourself down with a sponge.”

If you make a speech at the AGM, in which you accidentally summon the Prince of Darkness to consume Norfolk in a ball of evil, leading to a catastrophic collapse in the supply of mustard, does the bonus get delayed half an hour as punishment?

If you lose 50 million pounds by granting 125% mortgages to caterpillars, or lose 60 million pounds by lending someone the money to set up a Jimmy Savile theme park (which incurs unexpectedly low profits in its first quarter), is your bonus docked to 999,980 pounds instead of the full million?

This might even be a step in a rational direction after Royal Bank of Scotland announced multimillion-pound, 200% bonuses in a year when the bank was done for deliberately bankrupting its clients by refusing them loans at critical moments, so that it could swipe their assets.

But this, apparently, is why the bonuses need to be so high, as an incentive to maximise the bank’s profits, which will benefit all of us. So we should give them even bigger bonuses, then they’ll have the incentive to bankrupt all of us, until we’re sold as galley slaves on ships owned by RBS.

Then we’ll all have played our part in reviving the economy, contentedly rowing while singing the old galley slave ditty: “Mister Goodwin wouldn’t loan us, 50 quid out of his bonus, so now his mates all own us, tooralo-ra-lo-ra-ay.”

Many of the RBS new year bonuses amount to double the banker’s annual salary, so if they’re paid a million a year, then the bonus is two million. I suppose this reflects the fact that January is an expensive time.

First there’s the extra heating; then, with the dark nights, the kids get bored and want a panda or a hovercraft; and with the football transfer window open you can’t resist buying a central midfielder (with pace who can hold the ball up) as someone to help sweep the leaves. These costs all add up.

Labour leader Ed Miliband is suggesting these bonuses should be restricted to the total annual salary, saying “one million is enough”. But that was enough to get the Conservatives howling that he’s anti-business and against ambition.

Work and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith could announce: “As from next year, it will be legal for business to entertain clients by using the poor as fireworks. This will not only attract vital international investment, but provide an invaluable sense of self-worth for those on long-term benefits who are lit at one end and spun round as a Catherine Wheel.”

And if Miliband said he would place a 12-month ban on using people on housing benefit as sparklers, Prime Minister David Cameron would yell: “This shows he is as socialist as ever, ANTI-business, and ANTI-what’s good for Britain.”

A cap on bonuses, the Conservatives’ supporters said, would “encourage more risky banking”. And that could be damaging, because over the past few years the one thing we can be grateful for is there’s been no risky banking.

If anything, at times they’ve seemed too cautious. Take away their right to swipe two million a year for no discernible reason and they could be forced to act in a dicey fashion, possibly leading to an economic difficulty of some sort, if you could imagine a bank ever causing such a problem in any way.

The argument against caps on bonuses has usually been that banks are private companies, so they can’t be dictated to. But RBS is publicly owned.

So these bankers are taking public money for their bonuses, with the only defence left that if the bankers aren’t given these sums they’ll take their talents elsewhere, and bankrupt people in another country.

Before long we’d be begging them: “Please come back. We’ve gone months without anyone being deliberately bankrupted. We’re dying of solvency here.

“We’ve got piles of two million quid and don’t know where to put them. Come back please.”

Presumably, the government will now use the same methods to deal with people on benefits. People without work will receive a basic allowance, but if they can prove that, instead of lying about, they’ve tried to ruin someone’s business, they’ll get three times as much for making an effort.

And if the bankers do find it disturbing that some people feel disgruntled about their bonuses, they should be comforted by the fact there’s certain to be a television show made about their plight soon, called Bonus Street.

It will be a real-life ― at times harrowing ― portrayal of the antics of those who take millions in public money, often with no shame at all. We’ll see characters such as Bob Diamond and Fred Goodwin yelling: “Why haven’t you sorted that (beep)ing merger, you (beep)ing (beep), that’s (beep)ing 20 (beep)ing million we could have had away.”

It’s possible that there could be a backlash, with members of the public driving past calling them thieving scum, but hopefully the bankers will shout back: “Oh yeah, I’d like to see any of you get by on a million quid bonus.”

[This article first appeared at The Independent.]

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