Mick Clifford: Donohoe determines that the cap no longer fits

Move to restore bankers' bonuses of up to €20k seems ill-timed as the country struggles with a cost-of-living crisis
Mick Clifford: Donohoe determines that the cap no longer fits

Paschal Donohoe is accepting a recommendation from the Department of Finance’s retail banking review report. Picture: Damien Storan/PA

The cap on bankers' pay has its origins in the financial crash.

In September 2008, the Government announced it was introducing a bank guarantee to prevent the collapse of the financial system.

That decision remains mired in controversy, both in terms of its wisdom and its scope.

The bailout would cost €65bn, although around a half of this was recouped, which still leaves a huge sum which fell, for the greater part, on those in society least equipped to bear the cost.

One outcome from the guarantee was a decision to cap bankers’ pay. How could Joe and Josephine Public be expected to prop up the banks if those at the top in the institutions continued to live high on the hog?

More pertinently was the fact that the regime of remuneration for senior bankers, particularly bonuses, was seen as having fuelled the madness. 

The bailout

In March 2009, then finance minister Brian Lenihan introduced a cap of €500,000 on pay to executives in the banks which had been bailed out.

This represented up to a sixfold decrease from the salaries the top bods had pulled in over the preceding years.

Brian Lenihan introduced a banking cap in 2009. Picture: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie
Brian Lenihan introduced a banking cap in 2009. Picture: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

One might have thought that an executive on a few million quid a year would be able to properly run a bank, evaluate risk, and act with some degree of prudence, yet those basic business skills had been beyond them.

There was criticism in the Dáil that they were still being paid over the odds. 

Fine Gael’s Richard Bruton called the new ceiling “a cop-out”. He suggested the bankers' pay should be capped at around half the proposed sum.

“I am astonished that Brian Lenihan has decided to allow executives in AIB and Bank of Ireland to continue to draw salaries of €500,000,” he said.

The Labour Party chimed in that the public would still regard the pay scale as excessive, “particularly having regard to the role played by many senior bankers in creating our current economic crisis”.

The new regime also stipulated that there be limits on incentives, pensions, and termination payments.

Over the following years, the compliment of banks in the State depleted from six to just the three, AIB, Bank of Ireland, and Permanent TSB.

Bank of Ireland was in a position to circumvent the cap as it wasn’t fully controlled by the State. Its CEO through most of these years Francesca McDonagh still had to get by on a few grand short of a million, which is apparently regarded as chickenfeed among these masters of the universe.

Lobbying continued

Through it all, the intense lobbying persisted. How could the country retain the best and the brightest if the banks couldn’t pay a commensurate salary? How could these soar to new heights if constrained by turkeys?

We are told that the multi-million-euro packages are required to retain the best, but where is the evidence that those who pull in those kinds of big bucks are what’s required for relatively small financial institutions in a small country?

This year AIB and the Bank of Ireland were fined €197m between them for their respective roles in the tracker scandal while PTSB was fined €21m in 2019. Picture: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie
This year AIB and the Bank of Ireland were fined €197m between them for their respective roles in the tracker scandal while PTSB was fined €21m in 2019. Picture: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

They still have caps dating from the financial crash in countries such as Spain and in Iceland where the response to reckless bankers was to jail them.

Neither has there been the kind of culture shift that would suggest the upper echelons of banking are now populated by sober people who display due consideration for their customers and the wider financial system.

Just this year AIB and Bank of Ireland were fined €197m between them for their respective roles in the tracker mortgage scandal, while PTSB was fined €21m in 2019.

Despite all that, the lobbying has finally bore fruit.

Paschal Donohoe, in his last weeks as Minister for Finance, is accepting a recommendation from the Department of Finance’s retail banking review report to allow the talent fully spread its wings.

The cap will be removed from the two banks when the State’s holding is small enough that doing so won’t embarrass the government of the day.

Bonuses of €20,000 are to be allowed for the big brains henceforth.

The timing is pretty bad. As the country grapples with a cost-of-living crisis, there appears to be some urgency to assure bankers that they will soon be in position to once again afford a meal out now and again.

While some sections of society are finding it difficult to keep heads above water, at least the bankers will at last be able to break open the champers.

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