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Going without

Dutch bankers know people hate their pay packages, so they’re giving up bonuses

There are few more emotive issues in the business world than bankers’ bonuses, defended vigorously by the financial industry and vilified outside of it.

The European Union will impose limits on bonuses for the highest earners from January, capping payouts to 100% of a banker’s base salary in most cases. The UK, fearing damage to London’s position as a global finance hub, is fighting the cap in the European Court of Justice. The British are even investigating whether restrictions on bonuses run afoul of human rights laws, unfairly depriving bankers of their due rewards.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, a big bank has done the unthinkable: it will voluntarily ban bonuses for executive directors. Rabobank, a large co-operative lender, announced the ban in response to pressure from customers, investors and “widely held public views regard bank executives’ pay,” according to a statement from chairman Wout Dekker. Bonuses are “no longer compatible with the economic role Rabobank plays in Dutch society,” he added.

Will this set a precedent? Although Rabobank is one of Holland’s largest lenders, its co-operative ownership model means that it is not the hard-charging investment bank that is typically pilloried for its pay practices. (That said, Rabobank is ensnared in the Libor manipulation case, so it is not necessarily a model of probity.) Its executive pay restraint must also be considered in the context of a deep restructuring that includes job cuts, branch closures and wage freezes for rank-and-file staff.

So there are peculiarities about Rabobank’s ownership model and economic circumstances that make it a special case. But it is worth nothing that, despite its current troubles, Rabobank is alone among sizeable Dutch financial firms to weather the financial crisis without nationalization (ABN Amro and SNS Reaal), a bailout (ING and Aegon) or a full-blown bank run followed by bankruptcy (DSB Bank). In part due to the dysfunction of its banks, the Netherlands is cracking down hard on bonuses, seeking to limit variable pay to only 20% of a banker’s base salary, well below the ceiling proposed at the EU level. Rabobank had already limited the maximum bonus of its executives to 30% of pay.

Bonuses are not all bad

Bank critics will applaud Rabobank’s move to do away with bonuses altogether, paying its executives as if they worked at a utility instead of a casino, as the popular saying goes. Remember, however, that many defenders of bank bonuses are not out merely to line their pockets. Bonus caps weaken a bank’s ability to link pay to performance, making employee costs stickier and harder to adjust to changing conditions. Many banks have also introduced “clawback” rules for bonuses, delaying or even rescinding payouts if they were generated by actions that later prove overly risky or otherwise damaging.

Still, nobody can argue with a straight face that the bonus culture at big banks didn’t need shaking up. And whatever official limits are imposed on bankers’ pay, the pressure from “widely held public views,” as Rabobank shows, is proving equally influential.

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