Banks paid millions in bonuses weeks before ban on cash rewards

Majority of payouts already in executives’ accounts before UK dividend axe, say sources

Millions of pounds of bank bonuses were paid out weeks before the Bank of England banned British lenders from offering cash rewards to their most senior executives as the coronavirus crisis escalates.

In an intervention that sent banking shares tumbling on Wednesday amid renewed turbulence in financial markets, Threadneedle Street ordered Britain’s biggest high street banks late on Tuesday to cancel almost £8bn of dividend payments due to be made to investors this year, and told firms to scrap cash bonuses for top staff, or “material risk takers”.

However, banking industry sources said the bulk of cash bonuses will have already landed in executives’ accounts, including as recently as last week at some of the biggest banks.

According to a Guardian analysis of the bonus plans for employee performance at five of the UK’s biggest banks in 2019, which are payable this year, more than half a billion pounds of cash payouts had been earmarked for top executives.

Insiders said bonuses are usually paid alongside bankers’ March pay cheques, including at the British firms with the biggest investment banking bonus pots – Barclays, HSBC and Standard Chartered.

RBS and Lloyds, as banks bailed out in the 2008 financial crisis, and with smaller investment banking units, limit annual cash bonuses to £2,000 per senior employee.

Barclays had allocated £320m for its senior managers and material risk takers – staff who perform the most highly regulated jobs in finance – to be paid in cash rewards, with about half that amount deferred until next year. Sources said the bank, like others, paid bonuses in March.

HSBC had set aside $300m (£242m) and Standard Chartered $147m, with both banks deferring about half of those amounts to pay to staff in future. They are also understood to have paid bonus payments in the past four weeks.

Britain’s biggest banks have almost 5,000 material risk takers between them, with more than 1,000 of these senior bankers paid more than £1m each year. Bankers receive a large portion of their bonuses in shares, which are not affected by the Threadneedle Street move.

The intervention by the Bank’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), which is responsible for finance industry stability, is the latest step to cushion the economic blow from the coronavirus crisis, which aims to help high street banks keep lending.

Stopping cash bonus payments before they were made could only have happened if Covid-19 had struck earlier, it is understood, with officials racing to respond to the fallout.

However, industry sources said they believed regulators were putting the banks on notice that bonus payouts for 2020 would need to be significantly scaled back from previous years’ levels given the extent of the Covid-19 crisis.

In a warning to bank chiefs, the head of the PRA , Sam Woods, said the regulator was “confident that bank boards are already considering and will take any appropriate further actions with regard to the accrual, payment and vesting of variable remuneration over coming months”.

Threadneedle Street’s ultimatum for banks to scrap almost £8bn of dividends sent shock waves through the industry on Wednesday, triggering a sharp sell-off in bank shares and causing anger among executives.

According to the Financial Times, a debate among senior management at HSBC over whether the bank should relocate its headquarters to Hong Kong has been reignited after it was forced to cancel its dividend for the first time in 74 years.

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However, a spokesperson for HSBC said: “There are no discussions to review HSBC’s global headquarters and no plans to reopen the issue.”

Bank shares were among the biggest fallers on the FTSE 100 on Wednesday amid investor concern over the scrapping of dividends. Lloyds and Barclays slumped by almost 12%, while HSBC fell by almost 10%.

The index of leading UK company shares closed down more than 200 points, or 3.8%. The slide comes after share prices had steadied in recent days, after the worst quarter for losses on the FTSE 100 since the aftermath of Black Monday in 1987.

Contributor

Richard Partington Economics correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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