March 20 2009
By FT Reporters
Bankers on Wall Street and in Europe have struck back against moves by US lawmakers to slap punitive taxes on bonuses paid to high earners at bailed-out institutions.
Senior executives on both sides of the Atlantic on Friday warned of an exodus of talent from some of the biggest names in US finance, saying the “anti-American” measures smacked of “a McCarthy witch-hunt” that would send the country “back to the stone age”.
There were fears that the backlash triggered by AIG’s payment of $165m in bonuses to executives responsible for losses that forced a $170bn taxpayer-funded rescue would have devastating consequences for the largest banks.
“Finance is one of America’s great industries, and they’re destroying it,” said one banker at a firm that has accepted public money. “This happened out of haste and anger over AIG, but we’re not like AIG.”
The banker added: “It’s like a McCarthy witch-hunt...This is the most profoundly anti- American thing I’ve ever seen.”
Vikram Pandit, Citigroup’s chief executive, told employees in a memo that some anger about executive compensation was “warranted”. But he hit out against the idea of a special tax. “The work we have all done to try to stabilise the financial system and to get this economy moving again would be significantly set back if we lose our talented people because Congress imposes a special tax on financial services employees,” he wrote.
Some policymakers expressed concern that banks may try to break out of the government’s embrace by paying back public capital even if the price is a more severe credit squeeze. They also fear that financial institutions may decide not to take part in public-private partnerships to finance credit markets and acquire toxic assets.
The outcry followed Thursday’s approval by the House of Representatives of a bill that would impose 90 per cent tax on bonuses to employees whose gross income exceeded $250,000 at bailed-out firms.
Next week the Senate will also consider a hefty tax on bail-out bonuses amid calls for an investigation into who was responsible for allowing the pay-outs. Some senators are calling for a committee hearing on a bill that would impose a 70 per cent tax at bailed-out institutions, half paid by employees and half by companies, arguing that a delay would help cool political anger.
“There are three big industries where the US has global leadership: financial services, media and technology. Introducing this 90 per cent tax is like taking one of those industries out the back and shooting it,” said a top Wall Street executive.
In Frankfurt one employee at a US investment bank said the new tax measures would “send [the US] back to the stone age”.
“Commodity traders are already moving to companies like BP where they can make as much money as they used to,” said another banker at a US firm.
Bankers at Deutsche Bank said it could benefit from the proposed legislation by poaching its US rivals’ most talented employees.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009