The bosses of Britain's biggest banks are on course to be awarded millions of pounds in share payments to circumvent a Brussels-imposed bonus cap – a move that risks inflaming the toxic row over City pay deals.
The new payments would be in addition to bank leaders' basic pay because the EU is limiting bonuses to 100% of salaries – or 200% if shareholders approve larger payments.
The big-four high street banks are consulting shareholders about bonuses for chief executives that hit the 200% limit, alongside discussions on additional share payments so that none of the elite boardroom-level bankers would be worse off as a result of the cap.
The initiative threatens to bring further political and public scorn on an industry that suffered yet another reputational blow this month when Barclays increased its bonuses to staff by 10% to £2.4bn, despite reporting a 32% fall in profits.
The attempt to outflank pay limits comes as thousands of bank employees face the threat of redundancy.
Britain's biggest bank, HSBC, will on Monday become the first high street player to reveal the full details of how it has paid its 200,000 staff by publishing a 500-page annual report which contains the precise sums paid to its chief executive, Stuart Gulliver, and other top executives.
HSBC is expected to outline its approach to the bonus cap amid speculation that Gulliver stands to receive share awards on top of his £1.2m salary.
His counterpart at Barclays, Antony Jenkins, and fellow chief executives at bailed-out Lloyds Banking Group, António Horta-Osório, and Royal Bank of Scotland, Ross McEwan, are also likely to receive parcels of shares alongside their salaries in the coming months.
The details are still being hammered out with shareholders but it is thought the bankers will need to hold on to the shares for at least three years – or five in the case of Barclays – before they can be sold. The plans will be put to investors at annual general meetings in the spring.
Among ideas being discussed are monthly or quarterly payments in shares, although investors are expected to demand that in return for the additional payments the total earning capacity of top bankers will be reduced.
Bonuses for 2013 are not affected by the cap and RBS is next week expected to pay out bonuses of around £500m despite reporting losses of £8bn and a huge restructuring of its operations which are 81% owned by the taxpayer.
The bonus cap is forcing radical revisions to the way pay deals are structured, moving away from the complex three-pronged structure of salary, annual bonus and long-term incentive plans to schemes that are expected to comprise salaries, share allowances and bonuses.
Under their current pay deals, bank bosses have the potential to earn as much as 700% of their salaries in bonuses and their employers have been scrambling to find ways to keep their potential pay deals at such levels following the introduction of the cap on 1 January this year.
The government is opposed to the bonus limit and the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has said he does not back a "crude bonus cap". Andrew Bailey, the head of the Bank of England's Prudential Regulation Authority, has warned it could lead to a £500m rise in fixed salary costs at the big banks.
The share awards are an alternative to straightforward rises in salaries but could face scrutiny by the European Banking Authority which is creating the guidelines for how the new regime, which comes into effect for bonuses paid in a year's time, will operate. A review is expected in the second half of 2014.
The restrictions on bonuses affect individuals who are regarded as taking and managing risks and, according to the EBA, anyone who earns more than €750,000 (£620,000) a year could be included.
Barclays has told those staff affected by the cap that they will receive these payments, called role-based allowances, each month alongside their salaries. HSBC, which has previously admitted it might increase salaries, is expected to make quarterly payments of shares to 1,000 of its top staff.
On Monday HSBC bank is also expected to reveal how many of its staff were paid more than £1m – some 204 received that sum in 2012.
None of the banks would comment.
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