I work for a US bank in London and was last week given a bonus for 2008. It was 60 per cent of the 2007 bonus; it is a sign of the respect my managers have for me and I am grateful for it. However, my bank has received billions of dollars of support from the US government, meaning that my bonus is being paid for not by the bank’s shareholders but by taxpayers – which seems entirely inappropriate. What should I do? Give it back? Give it to charity? Resign? Or stop worrying and take it on the grounds that the bank was perfectly entitled to pay its staff what it considered necessary to motivate and keep them?
Banker, male, 35
It is a sign of how low your trade’s reputation has fallen that most Financial Times readers assume I’ve made you up. A banker with a conscience is not a creature they can understand.
The few who credit you with existence do not credit you with sense: they think your guilt is misplaced.
I don’t agree. It is right and proper to feel queasy about this money being dumped in your lap. It does not matter how good your performance was last year; banks that have been rescued should not be paying out bonuses at all. You suggest bonuses could be justified to stop bankers from jumping ship, but where are the safe harbours they are meant to jump into?
In spite of all this, I don’t think you should give the money back. For a start, you may find it impossible to do so for bureaucratic reasons. Most banks are hopeless at processing payments that are irregular; it would not surprise me if no one could even tell you which account to pay the money into. Even if you cleared that hurdle, you still should not pay it back because the bank would almost certainly lose it – just as it has lost its shareholders’ money.
What should you do with your ill-gotten gains? You suggest giving it to charity, but as charities were not the victims of your bank’s incompetence, I don’t see why they should be beneficiaries of your act of reparation. The victim was the economy, and so you should take your bonus, pay your tax and spend the rest in empty shops.
If you feel the need to protest against this rotten remuneration system, you need strength in numbers. I suggest you start a support group for bankers with a conscience. You would be making history as the first trade union devoted to reducing its members’ income.