Pity the Bankers Whose Bonuses Are on Hold

Jonathan Weil joined Bloomberg News as a columnist in 2007, and his columns on finance and accounting won Best in the Business awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in 2009 and 2010.
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One of the great freak shows playing out in the global capital markets is the incredible growth in Allied Irish Banks Plc's stock-market value. At 69.3 billion euros ($93.6 billion), the Dublin-based lender is now the second-most valuable bank in Europe, at least on paper, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. (For a brief moment last fall it was Europe's most valuable bank.) Its market capitalization ranks No. 11 globally, four places behind Citigroup Inc. And the beautiful part about all of this is it's a total crock.

The Irish government bailed out Allied Irish and still owns 99.8 percent of its shares, of which there were 521 billion at last count. Shares of Allied Irish still trade, though. And for some reason (this is irrational so don't expect me to know why) the stock has doubled in the past year to 13.3 cents. Choose whatever explanation you like -- thin float, illiquid stock, brain-dead retail investors, the shocking popularity of Garth Brooks among Dubliners -- it's bonkers.

Allied Irish, which received 21 billion euros of taxpayer bailout money from 2009 to 2011, reported a 758 million euro net loss for the six months ended June 30. Its shareholder equity is still a measly 10.6 billion euros. So imagine the surprise of Irish government officials recently when Allied Irish asked for permission to start a new bonus program for its bankers.

Then again, who can blame the bankers for trying? The stock price has doubled. Usually the way things work in banking is that when the bank's stock price doubles the bankers get paid nice bonuses. And does it really matter why it doubled? Or whether the bankers had anything to do with it? Or that the bank remains a ward of the state?

Sadly for Allied Irish's bankers, Ireland's finance minister, Michael Noonan, says it does. He dropped by Bloomberg's headquarters in New York this week. And in case you missed it here's what he said: "The answer is sorry guys, much better performance required before we'll even consider" bonuses. He added: "If any executive wants to leave AIB, I'll shake his hand and wish him fair passage as he leaves." What, will the shares have to triple?

Of course, if any of those executives could get hired at another bank that pays its bankers like bankers, a lot of them probably would have quit already. As for Allied Irish, here's the best idea I could think up for how it can start making money again: Figure out a way to short itself.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Weil at jweil16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net