Credit Suisse got a lot of, erm, credit last year for its efforts during the crackdown: when the City was forced to comply with a new FSA pay code and the banks subjected to a one-off 50% bonus tax, the Swiss bank enacted some of the City's strictest measures - as well as contributing £286m to the Treasury's overall scoop of £2bn. Now it looks like as though its pay-outs have just been cleverly delayed: these new awards to hundreds of its London-based bankers look like bonuses in all but name (although the money won’t be released until 2012/3, and will be subject to performance-related clawbacks). In fact, the Lib Dems' Treasury spokesman Lord Oakeshott even told the Guardian that that this 'could be sophisticated and aggressive tax avoidance'.
The bank apparently refused to comment – but what it did say was that if it doesn't 'remain competitive in the UK', it would be in danger of suffering a mass exodus of staff to more generous rivals - in other words, it had no choice. And it may have a point. The bank let its London employees bear the brunt of the crackdown, rather than letting shareholders take the pain instead (as others chose to do). Many of its stars would have winced as the bank slashed its reward pool by 5% and cut UK managing directors' bonuses by a further 30%. And these are bankers we're talking about here; it would hardly be surprising if a few mercenary number-crunchers suddenly up sticks and take their bespoke suits and silk ties elsewhere.
The question is, will this Credit Suisse move be the first of many? The Coalition will be watching closely: the last thing it needs, given its bold promises to crack down on bonuses (not to mention the ever-present risk of double-dip) is the City coming up with elaborate new ways to make sure its top brass continue to pocket massive sums of cash. But this does demonstrate the inherent difficulty in trying to impose a crackdown on the banks. As Credit Suisse has shown, it's easy enough just to bide your time and call your bonuses something different. Who's for a 'discretionary award' for remembering to wear your trousers?