x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Capped bonuses undermine whole banking ball game

America's National Football League is a curious organisation. It may come as a surprise to those who do not follow the game too closely that the NFL is based on socialist business principles.

America's National Football League is a curious organisation.

On the one hand it is a bastion of American values. Men of extraordinary proportions do gladiatorial battle on the gridiron, enthralling millions of fans from Anchorage to Arizona.

The season culminates each year with the Super Bowl, over which air force jets stream red, white and blue smoke while a pop sensation - this year it was Beyoncé - sings the national anthem.

So many eyeballs are glued to the big game every February that the advertisements in between plays are the most prized minutes of media time on Earth.

The average cost of a commercial in this year's showdown between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers was US$4 million (Dh14.6m) for a 30-second slot. Superbowl XLV in 2011, meanwhile was the most watched TV broadcast in history, with 111 million viewers worldwide.

So it may come as a surprise to those who do not follow the game too closely that the NFL is based on socialist business principles.

The pay of all the sporting behemoths on the field is capped by a complicated formula worked out as part of a "collective bargaining" contract - a phrase I haven't heard since a Trades Union Congress in late 1970s Britain.

That is not to say those players aren't in a similar pay bracket to their English Premier League football counterparts. The NFL cap this year was $123m per team.

What is more, teams are not allowed to spend their budget on any player they choose. The worst team in a particular league gets to choose the best rated player in the college draft while the best team gets no preferential treatment.

All of this is to ensure equality between teams, which is why one rarely dominates the NFL. There is no Manchester City, United or Chelsea equivalent in terms of Super Bowls won.

At the start of every season the NFL is as close to anyone's game as you can get in professional sport.

The English Premier League is based on an entirely capitalist business model, meanwhile, and is therefore much simpler to describe - at least it is for now.

You can pay as much as you like for the best players in the world to score as many goals as possible and catapult you into ever more lucrative competitions.

Robin Van Persie, for example, will be worth every penny of the £46 million (Dh255.6m) he will be paid over four years at Manchester United if he at some point wins the team a share of the €1.34 billion (Dh6.42bn) or so on offer to those who qualify for the Uefa Champions League and Super Cup.

Pay caps are already in force for rugby league teams in Britain and may well be on the cards for Premier League footballers, depending on how far Uefa goes with its new financial fair play rules that are on the horizon.

If they do, footballers will join Europe's bankers, who have just been informed their bonuses are to be capped at a level equal to their salary, thanks to the perceived inequality between the remuneration of financial services workers and the rest of society.

Pay caps may work in sport but football - American or otherwise - is a totally different game to banking.

The NFL pay cap works because it is just one part of a complex business model. All teams must play by the rules so that everybody can enjoy the game and nobody gets left out.

Banking doesn't work like that. It is the quintessence of cut-throat survival of the fittest capitalism. It may not be to everyone's taste, but that's how it works.

Bankers who earn big bonuses are more like Van Persie. They get paid the big bucks because they score all the goals. An investment banker who sets up or converts a big M&A deal gets paid a proportion of its value.

Stopping him from earning as much as he can for doing his job achieves nothing without systemic regulatory changes to alter the way the banking industry behaves as a whole.

But European politicians do not want that. They need the banking industry in its current form to sell their bonds, market their currency and to generally oil the wheels of economy.

In proposing a bankers' bonus cap they simply want to score a point by kicking the pariah of the day into touch. It is vengeance politics at its worst.

If Brussels truly wants to change the way workers are compensated then pass a law to ensure teachers and nurses are paid more. Give the long-term jobless tax breaks and subsidised education to help them back to work.

Fixing the economy is no game, so politicians in Brussels should not treat it as such. Capping bankers' pay looks like one own goal too many for Europe.