Mr. Shangkong

Hong Kong may have its own way around bankers' bonus caps

EU proposals to hold bonuses at two times base salaries may fall flat as many US banks in the city have been bumping up payrolls for their staff

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2012, 12:02pm

To most people, Christmas means presents. But to the banking industry, this Christmas may be more about Scrooge than Santa, warnings than gifts.

Last week, the European Union surprised the world by saying EU-based bankers' bonuses may be capped at two times their base salaries once a new regulation is passed.

"Why should a financial engineer be paid four to a hundred times more than a real engineer? A real engineer builds bridges. A financial engineer builds dreams and, when those dreams turn out to be nightmares, other people pay for it." That's what Andrew Sheng, a former chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission, said in an interview for the 2010 financial industry documentary Inside Job, and the EU seems to be echoing Sheng's sentiments.

In private discussions, however, some Hong Kong-based bankers laughed at the EU's bonus-capping move. They knew how banks would side-step such a regulation if Hong Kong imposed something similar. How? Why not just increase the base salary?

Indeed, since the 2008 global financial crisis, many US banks here have been quietly adjusting the structure of payrolls for their staff, especially at the senior level. For example, some banks removed the housing allowance for some mid- and senior-level expatriate staff. That could be worth as much as HK$250,000 per month for a managing director at a major Wall Street investment bank in Hong Kong, but they quietly bumped up the base salaries of the affected employees.

In other cases, the banks increased the base salary and then gave a smaller year-end bonus, to avoid annoying the public. In the good old days, a top executive in charge of China business at a global investment bank could earn about US$10 million a year, and two-thirds of that total annual income could come from bonuses.

Last week, bankers in Hong Kong had other concerns than just money. The Securities and Futures Commission proposed new rules, including one strongly opposed by investment bankers - sponsors could be jailed for helping firms raise money fraudulently through a listing on the stock exchange.

The proposed EU regulation makes banking jobs less lucrative, and the Hong Kong rule, subject to approval from the city's lawmakers, makes investment banking more risky. No wonder some in the industry joke that the next generation may seriously consider becoming doctors or lawyers instead.

In fact, the biggest problem of the banking industry is its ethical culture - summed up by the character Gordon Gekko's infamous quote in the film Wall Street: "Greed … is good".

A recent global survey by the CFA Institute shows 56 per cent of its members identified a continuing lack of ethical culture within financial firms as the major factor contributing to the current lack of trust in the industry, and two-thirds said a culture of ethics and integrity within firms needs to be re-established.

"The primary problems are not the physical failures of the market or government actions but the culture of firms within the financial industry," the institute concluded.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit