What Happens When There Are Limits on Bankers’ Bonuses?

It makes a bunch of risk-takers less likely to take risks.

Mark Lennihan / AP

Do bankers make too much? That question has been widely discussed ever since the 2008 financial crash, which many experts blamed (in part) on a system of compensation that excessively rewarded risky behavior.

As one element of the bailout, President Obama limited the compensation of executives at banks the government rescued, but the cap wasn’t absolute—compensation above $500,000 could be paid in stock—and the measure lifted once a bank paid the government back. The idea was that if bankers can’t make crazy sums of money by taking crazy risks, there will cease to be a reason to take those risks.

So does that strategy work?

In a new working paper, Anya Kleymenova and Irem Tuna, who are professors of accounting at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and London Business School respectively, look at one place that tried it—England, where an earnings-capping law went into effect in 2010. The law, called the Remuneration Code, specifically targets the bonuses of those making more than £500,000 a year, mandating that 60 percent of each bonus be paid out a minimum of three years after the fact.

The paper found that, indeed, it worked. Under the code, bankers became “less risky and [exhibited] higher pay-performance sensitivity, in line with the intended purpose of the regulation.”

In addition, the researchers saw two effects: First, firms started to see higher turnover; for companies, one of the main concerns of compensation caps is that they take away a tool for retaining talent. Secondly, the compensation packages companies offer their employees became much more complex after the regulation; it appears that, in response to the regulations, employers are laying out more detailed targets for what merits a bonus, though it’s not quite clear why this is the case.

In the U.S., regulators proposed rules this past April that would require that the biggest American banks defer at least half of executives’ bonuses for four years, and would impose a seven-year “clawback” period, during which, even after bonuses are given out, they could be rescinded if an executive is found to be involved in fraud or other misconduct.

The financial industry will likely continue to contend that big paychecks are necessary to stay competitive and, further, that bonus caps will just drive up base salaries. But, as a study by the European Banking Authority reported, the bonus cap in the EU has led to very small increases in bankers’ fixed pay. And yes, banks certainly do find ways to work around regulations, but considering that bonuses (not salaries) are often the drivers of risk-taking behavior, such maneuvering probably wouldn’t come with the society-wide negative consequences that bonus caps were designed to put a damper on.