France and Britain find unity in banker-bashing

But there's no sign of the US following suit, despite polls showing anger at bank execs

Sarkozy and Brown

France is set to follow Britain's lead in levying a 50 per cent tax on bankers' bonuses over €27,000. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also voiced her support for the measures, though it appears German bankers are likely to forestall any action by reforming rules on pay and bonuses themselves.

But crucially, neither the US nor Switzerland are showing any inclination to follow suit. The Swiss federal finance ministrycleverly ducked the issue, saying taxation in the decentralised country was largely up to Switzerland's 26 cantons.

In the US, talk of pay reform has died down after the initial anger at AIG and Goldman pay-outs. With the powerful financial services lobby committed against any measures to restrict compensation, there is little political will to challenge the status quo.

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"You'll see politicians talk about it, but they won't actually do it," Paul Miller, managing director of mid-size investment bank FBR Capital Markets in Washington, explained in the New York Times.

But after weeks of evidently strained relations between Britain and France, Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, did not begrudge Britain's lead in curbing banker pay - though noted it was a French idea. So there.

"We have been advocating this for a long time, and we are delighted to see that Gordon Brown is taking that stand," Mme. Lagarde said. "The president," she added, "thinks he is brave to take on the City."

Still, there are signs that the banks are going to act pre-emptively rather than allow themselves to be set on by politicians and treasury officials. Goldman Sachs announced its 30 top executives will get year-end bonuses in stock they can't sell for five years. Under the Goldman plan, the share allocations can be repossessed if the firm finds the recipient failed to gauge, analyse or warn of risk.

How effective the Goldman measure will be in curbing public anger at the "vampire squid" and its $16.7 billion 2009 bonus pool, remains to be seen. "They're trying to take the heat off the very large amounts of compensation they're going to pay," said compensation consultant Alan Johnson, who noted the value of Goldman bonuses was not being reduced, just carefully deferred.

While British and French bankers may legitimately feel picked on, American bankers may not be out of the woods. Two-thirds of Americans say they have an unfavourable view of financial executives and more than half say big financial companies are only out to enrich themselves, according to a Bloomberg poll.

With ratings like that, it may not be long before ambitious legislators make a move.

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Edward Helmore is a British journalist based in New York who contributes to The Observer and Vanity Fair. He writes for The Week on business and economic affairs.