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Bankers get one last bonus season before EU cap on payouts

An European Union flag flutters outside of the European Parliament in Brussels October 12, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
An European Union flag flutters outside of the European Parliament in Brussels October 12, 2012. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By John O'Donnell

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Bankers in Europe will have one final bonus season before they are barred from awarding themselves payouts worth more than their salary, EU lawmakers agreed on Wednesday, paving the way for the first cap of its kind globally.

The cap is designed to address public anger at a bonus-driven culture many European politicians believe encouraged the risk-taking that led to the near-collapse of some of the region's biggest banks.

The law will take effect in January 2014 but will only apply to bonuses paid in 2015. A special provision to recognize that bonuses are paid for the previous year's work means bankers who collect payouts next February and March will not yet be affected.

The new rules will make it harder to award large payouts such as the bonus worth more than 17 million pounds ($25.7 million) cashed in this week by Rich Ricci, the head of Barclays' investment bank.

"The parliament withstood the pressure from the British government and did not allow any change to the cap on bonus payments," said Udo Bullmann, a German member of parliament who pushed for strict limits.

"Despite bitter resistance from national capitals and the finance industry, Europe will be a little bit fairer from 2014."

The bonus talks have been emotional and divisive. Some lawmakers, thinking ahead to pan-European elections next year, demanded stricter rules while others tried to dilute them.

One angry British lawmaker walked out of the talks on Wednesday, but later parliamentarians applauded and toasted the deal with champagne.

SOBERING EXPERIENCE

The rules, part of a wider capital regime for banks, allow bonuses of twice bankers' salary if shareholders agree. They represent the toughest bonus regime anywhere in the world.

The cap has been softened to allow banks to pay up to a quarter of a banker's bonus in share options, bonds or other non-cash payments which attract a premium after five years.

Payments made after more than five years would qualify for a bigger discount when calculating the size of the bonus, to make the total payment slightly more generous than foreseen by the cap.

The cap will be introduced despite objections from Britain and the next step, an endorsement by European Union (EU) states, is a formality.

Earlier this year, Britain's finance minister George Osborne tried to change the rules at a meeting with his EU counterparts, but no one supported him. Britain could not veto the rules on its own.

The new rules threaten Britain's financial industry the most of any European country and raise the risk that some top bankers could relocate to financial centers outside the European Union.

Sharon Bowles, who as chairwoman of the parliament's influential economic and monetary affairs committee played a central role in negotiations, said scandals over the fixing of lending benchmarks such as Libor had hardened resolve in the parliament to demand the cap.

"Neither Britain nor industry ever accepted the idea of a cap," Bowles said. "Then Libor came along and the position of the parliament hardened."

Osborne's inability to fend off the reform underscored Britain's waning influence in the EU and is also likely to fuel deepening euro skepticism in Britain.

"This was a sobering experience," said one official familiar with British thinking, who asked not to be named. "It's the first time the UK was outvoted on financial services... There are autopsies being carried out at the UK Treasury."

The rules are also a setback for European banks, which had long argued that the curbs would put them at a disadvantage to U.S. rivals.

"If you want to restrict bonuses we should do it on a global level," said Christian Clausen, president of the European Banking Federation lobby group told Reuters.

"We have the risk that customers will do business with American banks that still pay high bonuses."

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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