FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Top bankers defended their culture of bonuses on Tuesday against an onslaught of regulation that aims to put them on a tighter leash almost a year after Lehman Brothers collapsed.
Executives from Credit Suisse Group AG CSGN.VX, Morgan Stanley (MS.N) and Deutsche Bank AG (DBKGn.DE) said the global financial system needed reform but defended a bonus-driven system that critics say encouraged banks to take big risks.
“Bonus payments alone have not caused the financial crisis,” Credit Suisse Vice Chairman Urs Rohner told the annual Banks in Transition conference in Germany’s financial capital, a two-day meeting of the banking world’s elite.
Morgan Stanley Co-President Walid Chammah said the bank was “against absolute caps on compensation levels,” while Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Josef Ackermann chimed in that banks could not let star performers slip through their fingers by being tight fisted.
“The war for talent is in full swing,” Ackermann said. “The question of whether we have learned something focuses too much on the question of bonuses and leaves out other aspects.”
Their comments mark the investment banking industry’s defense against those keen to crimp eye-popping payouts that critics say led to excessive risk-taking and pushed the financial system to the edge of the abyss.
Banks are feeling the heat as regulators, central banks and national governments take measures to try to ensure freewheeling banks do not again become loose cannons in the economy.
Yet other bankers were less bullish in their defense of bonuses.
Andreas Treichl, CEO of Austria’s Erste Group Bank AG (ERST.VI), said: “I do believe that bonus payments were partially responsible for the crisis,” adding bankers had to respect public outrage about the business-as-usual attitude on outsized pay.
HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA.L) (0005.HK) Chairman Stephen Green took a similar line. “The list of mistakes is long. Wrong targets were set for incentives, particularly regarding remuneration, without regard for sustainability,” he said.
Central bankers on Sunday proposed a new regulatory framework that would force banks to set aside more profits as a cushion against hard times.
Some finance ministers from the Group of 20 countries also want to explore ways to rein in bonuses.
Although regulators and politicians broadly agree risk-hungry behavior by highly paid bankers was one of the main causes of the financial crisis, they have struggled to agree on how to regulate or cap bonuses.
“Superstars are going to get superstar bonuses. That is not going to change,” one London-based banker said, citing the multi-million-dollar guaranteed bonuses that banks still dangle to keep top dealmakers or lure them away from rivals.
Assurances about cutting bonuses have followed separate moves by banks such as Morgan Stanley, UBS AG UBSN.VX and Citigroup Inc (C.N) to hike basic salaries as a way to keep remuneration high, even at banks which accepted bailout money.
Bankers in Frankfurt urged a prudent approach to rule-making and restraint on attempts to scale back sprawling global banks.
HSBC’s Green said the term “too big to fail” was unhelpful because smaller banks also had to be rescued.
He said the lesson from Lehman’s demise was instead that corporate structures need to be simpler so regulators can understand better which parts they need to monitor.
Deutsche Bank’s Ackermann said there was no clear link or pattern between a good or bad bank based on their business model or the size of bonuses they awarded.
Lloyds Banking Group Plc (LLOY.L) and Banco Santander SA (SAN.MC) were both retail banks but enjoyed somewhat different fortunes, while investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS.N) thrived even as Lehman folded its tent, he noted.
The Swiss executive atop Germany’s flagship lender warned that regulators could choke off an economic rebound if they made overly restrictive rules.
“It is important that, before we take a detailed look (at capital requirements), we do a cost-benefit analysis for the economy. The consequences for credit availability and the price of credit need to be considered,” he said.
But he acknowledged the banking industry did not have enough capital. “And I deem it right that this has to be corrected.”
Additional reporting by Eva Kuehnen and Christoph Steitz; Editing by David Holmes