What would Karl Marx make of the investment banking industry? At first glance, it is a consummate dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - an elite concerned only with its own (vast) enrichment.
But viewed from another perspective, investment banks are a socialist workers' paradise. The providers of capital have been comprehensively disenfranchised, and most of the returns from investment banks' activities accrue not to the hated owner class - who have endured collapsing share prices and shrivelling dividends - but to the workers, in the form of vast salaries and bonuses.
Or at least, they did. Now, something like revolution is in the air. Shareholders of the world, having realised they've nothing to lose but their shirts, are uniting - and asking some hard questions about banks' remuneration arrangements.
You might not have read this in the mainstream media, but bonuses in respect of 2011 are down, by quite a lot in some cases. A couple of months ago, a website called Here Is The City compiled a table of average bonuses year on year. It makes sobering reading for purveyors of vintage champagne and sports cars. Average payouts to UK staff at many of the US banks were down by between a fifth and a quarter. Europeans fared worse; taxpayer-owned RBS cut bonuses by almost 60 per cent, as did Swiss giant UBS, which was hit by a rogue trader scandal and stringent capital requirements in its home market.
The new mood of rebellion is affecting the boardroom, as well as the trading floor. Big investors are openly questioning why Barclays' boss Bob Diamond - technically an employee like any other - should be paid £17m (before tax) when the bank missed its own return on equity targets and when its shares trade below net asset value.
Earlier this week, over half of Citigroup's shareholders either abstained or voted against a pay plan that would have showered chief executive Vikram Pandit in money just a day or two after he told investors there could be no guarantee that dividends would rise this year. This wasn't a binding vote, but it was a clear message, vividly reinforced by terms like "ludicrous". Even the mighty Goldman Sachs isn't immune. Doing God's work netted chief executive officer Lloyd Blankfein just over $12m in 2011, down 35 per cent on the previous year.
Of course, to most people these are still vast sums of money for performance that generally varies between average and mediocre. But make no mistake, the halcyon days of gigantic bonuses are drawing to a close, as banks face up to a new reality of more inquisitive regulators, more assertive shareholders, a more hostile public and more competitive markets. To paraphrase: "Let the banking classes tremble at a stakeholders' revolution!"
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