Europe's leaders say tax financial bonuses more

AP News
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Posted: Dec 10, 2009 3:58 PM

European leaders ganged up against fat bonuses to bailed-out bankers Thursday, hoping to create a groundswell of support from around the globe.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed it was a good idea to slap higher taxes on performance pay, especially considering they are back on the rise soon after last year's financial meltdown that led to taxpayer-funded bailouts in some cases. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also embraced the idea.

"The debate in the international community will move forward," said Brown after talks with Sarkozy and a joint editorial in the Wall Street Journal, where they said that "a one-off tax in relation to bonuses should be considered a priority."

Brown said the move was bound to find takers around the world.

"I think we are going to reach a satisfactory conclusion in a few months about how we can ensure that banks never again put us in the position where society has to pay such a big price," he said after meeting with Sarkozy.

Brown's government on Wednesday said it would impose a one-time 50 percent tax on 2009 bonuses above 25,000 pounds ($40,800), and Brown said Sarkozy made a similar commitment.

The French and British leaders met in Brussels ahead of an EU summit Thursday and "are completely aligned," said a British diplomat, who demanded anonymity because the talks were private.

Brown also wrote a letter to his 26 fellow EU leaders, urging them to take quick action on climbing bank bonuses.

"Again now, banks have made very large profits, and some of their employees have received bonuses equal to many multiples of average earnings," he wrote.

"While the benefits of success are reaped by the few, the costs of failure are borne by the many. We must therefore act," he wrote.

Merkel threw the weight of the EU's economic powerhouse behind the idea. She described Britain's tax as an "attractive idea" that might encourage some lessons to be learned in London's financial district.

"We want banks and their businesses to pay a share, that the burdens of the crises could be shared and not loaded on to taxpayers alone," she said at a meeting of European center-right leaders in Bonn, Germany.

Last month France's government issued new rules to all banks operating in France _ foreign banks included _ that limited bonuses. The rules will force banks to spread out compensation over several years to ensure pay reflects long-term performance and doesn't reward risky decisions that soon turn bad. At least half of the bonus will be withheld, to be paid over three years depending on performance.

The bonus amounts and how they are distributed must be published each year.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned that "we cannot have a simple return to business as usual and that would apply to the bonuses," his spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said.

The Brown-Sarkozy joint bonus tax bid appeared to heal a rift in Anglo-French relations that opened over the appointment last month of Frenchman Michel Barnier to oversee EU financial markets, including the City.

Sarkozy had proclaimed victory over Barnier's appointment and denounced "Anglo-American" finance methods for causing the global economic meltdown. British bankers responded angrily.

The British official said the leaders' 30-minute meeting Thursday was convivial and was "to use the French phrase, a tete-a-tete'" meaning the leaders met with only one interpreter present.

Attempts to impose similar bonus taxes in the United States have faltered in the Congress. The House of Representatives voted in March to impose a 90 percent bonus tax at companies that received at least $5 billion in federal bailout money, but a similar effort in the Senate to pass a smaller 70 percent tax covering a wider range of companies faltered.

U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs announced Thursday its top executives will not be receiving cash bonuses in 2009, as the Wall Street giant bowed to sharp criticism over its pay practices.

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AP Business Writers Emma Vandore and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.