European CEOs to become the poor men of banking

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In the current climate it may be unpalatable to talk about executive pay in anything other than disparaging terms, but the new EU bonus rules risk making European banking chief executives the poor men of finance.

Yes, a poor banking CEO is something of an oxymoron and the bosses of British banks like Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland have waived their bonuses this year in an attempt to defuse the ruckus over greedy bankers. Nonetheless, the EU’s attempt to cap bonuses at no more than 100% of salary (or 250% if shareholder approval is given) means they’ll get paid decidedly less than their peers at US banks.

Like the rest of their staff, bank CEOs will be subject to the EU bonus caps (assuming banks are unsuccessful in their attempts to block the rules or dodge them). Unlike staff lower down, such as traders or big hitting dealmakers, they’re unlikely to be able to make it up with higher salaries.  “It would be very tricky at a board level to increase base pay for CEOs dramatically in response to the EU bonus cap,” said Rupal Patel, director in executive compensation at KPMG.

Some insight into what UK bank CEOs have expected comes from HSBC, which disclosed that it limits variable compensation for its top executives, including its CEO, to a whopping nine times salary. That includes 300% for annual bonus and 600% for longer term performance pay. This year, HSBC CEO Stuart Gulliver, received £6.2m ($9.3m) in compensation, from a potential £12.5m entitlement, £4.95m of which was in variable remuneration including a group performance share plan. He didn’t get paid as much as HSBC rules would allow, but at around times salary, his compensation was above four the proposed EU rules.

Gulliver’s pay doesn’t look too shabby compared to his US-based peers currently. Goldman’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein received $21m last year; J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon got his comp slashed to a cool $11.5m after the “London whale” incident and Michael Corbat, Citi’s CEO, got $11.5m including a $4.1m cash bonus. Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman, meanwhile, made $6m.

CEO pay is complex, and involves a mix of deferred shares, long-term incentive programmes and generous benefits that tend to muddy the absolute figure. However, because the new rules include any sort of variable compensation, pay for banking CEOs in Europe looks set to fall a long way below that in the US.

While poorly paid bank CEOs in America talk of bad years hitting compensation, the EU looks set to change executive pay permanently to the point where it will remain depressed. This is a far cry from 2011 when Bob Diamond, then Barclays CEO, was the best paid FTSE 100 chief with a £20.9m ($31.5m) package.

This will ultimately impact European banks ability to attract top class CEOs, particularly those from outside of Europe, said Bill Allum, managing director of executive search firm Execuzen.

“There’s a finite number of individuals with the required experience for a CEO role in a top tier bank and, considering the stress and political issues associated with running such an institution currently, clearly it’s going to be more difficult for European banks to hire people of that calibre if they are high restrained by pay,” he said.

Any new banking CEO should not be motivated by a big pay package, though, argued Patel.

“CEOs often receive less pay than front office staff. Fundamentally, the motivation and drivers for CEOs are different to front office staff and therefore their remuneration structures tend to be less geared than you would find for front office staff,” she said.

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