Swedish banks defend big bonus payouts

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Swedish banks are reportedly poised to pay only slightly less in bonuses this year than last, despite the effects of the global crisis, government bail-outs and continuing public anger over remuneration within the sector.

But, argue the banks, it's a case of "damned if we do, damned if we don't" until the details of the post-G20 bonus and remuneration framework are hammered out by the world's political leaders and financial regulators.

Stockholm daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter has calculated that Sweden's four main banks will pay out a combined SEK5.4bn in bonus payments this year, compared with SEK5.7bn in 2008.

Using projections based on six-month reports from the groups as well as estimated full-year profits, it says SEB would top this year's bonus ranking, despite being one of those that joined the government's voluntary guarantee programme earlier in the year.

It was projected to pay out SEK2.4bn, up 9% on 2008, with Nordea set to pay out SEK2bn and Swedbank SEK800m.

While banks remain reluctant to be drawn on exact figures, the uncertainty over the past year over the future shape and structure of bonuses has made it very hard in practice for banks to readjust what they reserve, argues Jan Larsson, head of group identity at Nordea.

"A lot of banks are looking at their bonus schemes to evaluate how they should follow the G20," he points out.

The G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September agreed that banks should defer up to 60% of bonus pay-outs over three years, and put in place arrangements to 'claw back' payments from staff who failed to perform.

But with the implementation of the proposals still being worked out, it has been very difficult for any bank unilaterally to slash its bonus pool without putting itself at a significant disadvantage, Larsson emphasises.

"We have a very mobile labour force and we have to be competitive. No bank wants to be the first to move in this field," he adds.

The banks could nevertheless be making a better fist of explaining why they need to be paying themselves such large bonuses, argues Ola Pettersson, economist with the LO (Landsorganisationen I Sverige) trade union.

"We are not in favour in general of the state trying to issue decrees about how much people should be paid, but this is about an issue of financial stability," he says.

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