Why investment bankers in Sweden can still command bonuses

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Governmental pressure to reduce banking bonuses in Sweden has never been greater. But, as Nordea's defiant stance last week demonstrates, it's questionable just how effective this has been.

In spite of calls from politicians to curtail variable remuneration in 2009, Nordea revealed that it has allocated SEK2.9bn for its bonus pool this year, with record amounts being awarded to staff within its capital markets division.

The decision has, predictably, provoked a scathing attack from financial markets minister Mats Odell, who said the government would continue to push for bonuses to be scaled back.

The bank has seen a sharp reduction in profits over the last 12 months, and is now nearly 20% owned by the government. Therefore, any hefty bonus payouts will undoubtedly stir public anger.

But these bonuses aren't being paid across the board. As outlined in February, the incentives would largely encompass 400 leading figures in the bank and the majority are likely to be within the capital markets division.

Here, total operating income was up from €1.3bn in 2008 to €2.2bn last year. It's not surprising, therefore, that Nordea wants to reward these employees - indeed, it has to in order to avoid losing them to competing firms.

Swedbank is at the other end of the spectrum, seemingly bending over backwards to placate government and public anger by cancelling the majority of bonus payouts for this year.

But this isn't the whole story. As the bank's remuneration report points out, it still paid bonuses to some 1,700 employees that were classified as 'risk-takers'. Traders, brokers and fund managers within the bank's capital markets divisions are top of this pile.

The fact of the matter is that investment banking remains a business built on people, and while high-performers continue to bring in bumper profits, they'll expect to be rewarded accordingly. If their current employer can't offer this, it's highly probable that another institution will.

SEB has pointed to the fact that its variable compensation for 2009 stands at just 5% of total staff costs - down from 13% in 2008 and 20% in 2006 and 2007.

However, it says that it needs to remain competitive within the "international market in which it competes" and says the "remuneration model has been adapted to individual competences, each respective business line and country of operation".

In other words, if other investment banks are paying big bonuses, it will too.

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