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Are Bay Street's golden days coming to an end?

 

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Eoin Callan, Financial Post Published: Wednesday, February 11, 2009

 

Some of Canada’s banks are already exploring ways to change their reward structure for investment bankers to avoid creating incentives for dealmakers to hastily arrange risky deals and walk away after collecting their bonuses.ReutersSome of Canada’s banks are already exploring ways to change their reward structure for investment bankers to avoid creating incentives for dealmakers to hastily arrange risky deals and walk away after ...

 

When Ed Clark receives his multi-million-dollar bonus next week, the chief executive of TD Bank will face immediate pressure to return the money.

 

Bay Street's best-paid chieftain is being singled out by shareholders after three of his peers handed back their bonuses at a time when bank bosses around the world are being publicly shamed for dragging the globe into the worst recession in decades.

 

The pressure from investors comes amid growing signs that a deep shift is afoot in the way executives and investment bankers on Bay Street are paid that could have a lasting impact on the industry.

 

Shareholders, regulators and politicians are beginning to push for far-reaching changes in incentives in a bid to mitigate risk and help avoid the catastrophic failures that have plunged the global banking industry into crisis.

 

Some of Canada's banks are already exploring ways to change their reward structure for investment bankers to avoid creating incentives for dealmakers to hastily arrange risky deals and walk away after collecting their bonuses.

 

BMO Financial is in the midst of a thorough overhaul of the way it compensates bankers.

 

The review has not been publicly disclosed, but bankers have been told to expect significant changes after similar moves at international banks such as UBS, which has introduced delays and clawback provisions for bonuses.

 

But other banks are likely to be caught flatfooted as Ottawa prepares to sign up to a set of international guidelines on pay for bankers that are being drawn up in advance of an upcoming summit of the Group of 20 nations in London.

 

Canada's top banking regulator said Wednesday that a consensus was emerging at a special three-day meeting in Paris "to set out sound practice guidelines on compensation for the consideration of both the [Financial Stability Forum] and the G20."

 

"There is [a] general agreement that supervisors have a role to play in assessing whether institutions meet and implement sound practices for compensation," Ms. Dickson added by e-mail from Paris.

 

Reform of compensation practices at banks to mitigate risk is likely to be one of the handful of tangible reforms to emerge from the summit of world leaders, said John Kirton, director of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto

 

"There are not many areas of consensus ... compensation is an easy one," said the professor.

 

But policymakers stress that Canada is likely to stop well short of moves by Washington to cap pay or other more interventionist approaches that have accompanied part nationalizations in the U.K.

 

Instead, the approach in this country is likely to involve the supervisor taking into account of compensation schemes when evaluating the level of risk at Bay Street banks and determining the amount of capital they must hold in reserve.

 

This is seen as a more subtle way of pressuring banks to reform their compensation schemes.

 

While a link between compensation and capital requirements would be unwelcome on Bay Street, several bank compensation experts said Wednesday it could create an opening for them to tackle huge wage bills, which are a major cost for financial institutions.

 

But the awarding of hefty bonuses amid a recession induced by the financial system has also triggered a wider social debate about executive compensation, as oft-repeated arguments about retaining "talent" wear thin.

 

While these "moral and ethical" views are not shared by many investors who are critical of executive compensation, they see an opportunity to make common cause.

 

Michel Nadeau, director of the Institute of Governance of Private and Public Organizations, said he was shocked by the level of compensation Canadian bank boards had awarded to executives amid a bruising year for investors.

 

"There is something wrong in that world," said the former executive at Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the Quebec pension fund.

 

Shareholders are also not shy about enlisting the muscle of securities regulators in pushing pay up the agenda.

 

A shareholder group representing many of the country's largest investors cited executive compensation as its "number one" priority for 2009 during a private meeting this week with Ontario Securities Commission, according to documents obtained by the Financial Post.

 

The group also drew the attention of enforcement officials to a probe launched by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who said Wednesday he was investigating "secret" moves to pay bonuses early at Merrill Lynch.

 

While the investors group did not make allegations of wrongdoing, a person familiar with the discussions said there were precedents for securities regulators investigating compensation matters.

 

The Canadian Coalition for Good Governance, which represents investors with $1.4-trillion of assets under management, has also met with the chairmen of each of Canada's top banks.

 

"Compensation is the big issue right now," said Stephen Jarislowsky, a major shareholder in Canadian banks who manages $52-billion.

 

But his immediate focus is next week's bonus award to Mr. Clark, who was paid a $12.7-million bonus by TD last year, making him Bay Street's highest paid executive.

 

"Ed is the worst offender," said Mr. Jarislowsky.

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