x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Seeing stars is not like being one, Mr Gulliver

Once again bankers and bonuses are back in vogue. You could say that like the little black dress, they never go out of fashion.

Less than 10 years ago, Leeds United Football Club were playing in the semi-final of the European Champions League. Their players were feted, and their manager David O'Leary, a former star himself at Arsenal, seen as a possible future international manager. Their strikers were Alan Smith and Mark Viduka. Smith is now retired, having broken his leg in three places, while Viduka was sold. O'Leary is an occasional media pundit, but otherwise a forgotten figure.

Leeds have fallen further and faster than their former stars. They are now in League One, which used to be the old Third Division, two notches below the Premier League and the Championship. The club have neither the money to buy new players, nor the ability to get out of League One. Twenty years before Leeds's untimely exit at the hands of Valencia - a 3-0 drubbing incidentally - the Hollywood director Michael Cimino persuaded United Artists to bankroll a film called Heaven's Gate. It tells the tale of a dispute between land barons in Wyoming and European immigrants in the 1890s. The cast was stellar: Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt and Sam Waterson, among others. The film was a flop. Cimino's career effectively ended and the studio was unable to survive.

The reason for this little history lesson is that once again bankers and bonuses are back in vogue. You could say that like the little black dress, they never go out of fashion. Show a banker a balance sheet in the black and he will start demanding his share, normally about 50 per cent. This week, John Varley, the chief executive of Barclays, used footballers to explain bankers' lavish pays while Stuart Gulliver, who runs the investment bank at HSBC, used the analogy of Hollywood stars.

"The football analogy certainly goes some way I think [to explain bonuses] ? There is simply no higher priority than to ensure we field the very best people. That in a sense is exactly the same as a football manager if they are going to win. Our obligation is to ensure we pay appropriately," said Mr Varley. Mr Gulliver likened the situation to a Hollywood studio that not only paid stars for pulling in profits, but also rewarded many of the extras. "If a foreign exchange trader makes a deal, then they know two days later how much they made. If it's a £5 million [Dh31.1m] profit, that is something we can count, we can see it, it's real. And they are part of a successful team," he said.

There are many reasons why bankers are not footballers and here are just a few: they aren't as fit, don't perform in public and can work beyond their 30th birthday. If they make a bad move they aren't booed or left on the bench for a week. Footballers may trash the odd nightclub or entertain the occasional attractive fan, but in comparison to bankers, they are mild and well behaved. At least they don't take out the entire financial system, send us all into recession, then demand to be given millions of dollars six months later.

Both Messrs Varley and Gulliver think that it is their individual brilliance that has contributed to Barclays and HSBC's cracking results. Of course it is nothing of the sort. Both firms have built up large domestic and international networks over more than 100 years. And both have benefited from being able to use the capital of their shareholders. Keith Harris, the champion footballer and owner of Seymour Pierce, a small investment bank with offices in London and Edinburgh, also sees parallels between football and banking, quoting Sir Alex Ferguson's maxim that "managing change is the most difficult item in business and sport, we need to think of tomorrow not today".

But while he has no problem with footballers earning thousands every week, he thinks his former banking colleagues are "massively overpaid". "It was insane and ludicrous," he told me in March. "It has been shocking to be a shareholder in one of those companies." Shareholders are probably feeling a lot better five months later, as bank share prices have recovered, but for Mr Harris and many others it is the shareholders, not the bankers, who should be benefiting.

"I often compare stars in banking and entertainment," he says. "The difference is that stars have huge natural talent, while few bankers make any difference without access to somebody else's capital. In rising markets, anyone can make money." Barclays and HSBC bosses bleat that they did not need government help to survive, but managed to get a whip-round from brave investors in the Gulf and elsewhere. This overlooks the fact that the British government bailed out the financial system.

"Banks should watch out that they do not misuse taxpayer support - it's designed to facilitate lending, not mega pay deals. Without taxpayer support, the whole system faced failure," warned George Osborne, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer. I have nothing against top performers earning thousands of pounds every week, just as I do. But I do object to bankers who are still afloat thanks to the largesse of the taxpayer rewarding themselves with bumper payouts. If they really are banking stars, they should borrow a few million from a bank and set up their own businesses and then they can pay themselves what they want.

Just one proviso: if they go bust, they stay bust. No government handouts, no golden parachutes. Just like the footballers who break their legs or the film directors who make a film that nobody can bear to watch. rwright@thenational.ae