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People walk past the Bank of England in the City of London on September 28, 2012. (c) CARL COURT/AFP/GettyImages
Image: Carl Court/AFP/GettyImages

Bonuses for bankers

Klaus Jansen / ag
March 3, 2013

The Swiss have publicly voted for putting caps on bonus payments for bankers. The EU has already brought legislation on the way to do the same across the Union from 2014. But will that truly help to improve the system?


Greedy, selfish bankers - that's the image that has been engrained in the minds of many since the beginning of the financial crisis. One of the responses from students at Harvard Business School was to create the MBA Oath, which allows students and graduates to pledge to "create value responsibly and ethically." But this is probably easier said than done.

In fact, it's not only society that a banker has to serve, said Würzburg-based economist Ekkehard Wenger. Bankers are not only focused on ensuring their livelihoods,they also have to make sure that the customer isn't cheated and that the bank makes profits, he added. The banker has to please many parties. 

Bankers as allrounders

So what is a "good" banker? One who is honest, adheres to the law and loyal to his business is a good banker, according to business ethicist Christoph Lütge. A "good" banker would not only work speedily on behalf of the customer, he would also keep an eye on sustainability - and he is supposed to do all of that as transparently as possible. Large bonuses are justified "if one gives the right incentives and says, 'yes, give out high bonuses, but only when you do your business sustainably,'" Lütge said.

Christoph Lütge, business ethicist (Copyright: Technische Universität Munich)
"One banker can't change the system," says ethicist LütgeImage: TU München

But sustainability, in particular, was not rewarded for a long time, according to economist Wenger. "People were paid for things that briefly appeared successful but turned out to be a nonstarters in the end," he said.

Lured by the model

By the 1980s, at the latest, bankers relied more on machines, according to business historian Werner Abelshauer.

"Scientists had developed models that could supposedly eliminate risks to a large extent. It's no longer the banker who creates trust, it's the algorithm, the technology," he said, while adding that at that point certain tendencies for criminal activities entered the banking world.

The algorithms that appeared infallible to many bankers were simply too tempting. "The system bears the risk for the human side of this business to disappear," business ethicist Lütge warns. Every human being needs a clear set of rules, otherwise he would be quickly overwhelmed, he adds. As a result, Lütge doubts the merits of Harvard Business School's ethics oath. After all, one person alone can't change the banking system.

Rolled-up euro notes, linew up in a row (Copyright: Tatjana Balzer/Fotolia)
Morals and money - how can they go together?Image: Fotolia/ Tatjana Balzer

Coming up with new rules

However, many banks have come to realise that a system of short-term bonuses doesn't help during the course of the current economic crisis. So they have switched to bonuses based on medium or long-term achievements.

Werner Abelshauser, business historian at the University of Bielefeld (Copyright: dpa)
Abelshauser: "People didn't trust the banker, but the algorithm."Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Putting maximum caps on bonuses, valid across the EU is yet another step. From 2014, extra payments will not be able to exceed fixed annual salaries - only in exceptional cases will it be possible to double the amount. This is intended to make banks and the whole industry less prone to risks.

The effects of the EU's restrictions on banking bonuses remain to be seen - only time will tell whether bankers will be driven more by morals than the quest for profits. As an ethicist, Lütge advises young bankers to take on a broader perspective and to possibly look into philosophy or other social sciences.

But economist Wenger is more pragmatic. "There is no point asking a banker to be a better man than, say, politician who takes his voters for fools. After all, we don't have such high expectations from that [a politician] either," he said.

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