Staff at John Lewis are looking forward to bonuses totalling £200m this year. Everyone thinks this is wonderful, of course, as John Lewis is supposedly a fine example of a 'mutual', a 'partnership' that is owned by the people who work in the organisation.
Staff at the Royal Bank of Scotland, meanwhile, are getting bonuses of £576m. Everyone thinks this is terrible, as the banks are thought 'greedy', not to mention mean to customers who want business loans.
The RBS bonus pot is just over twice that of the John Lewis bonus pot. But RBS has a turnover around 15 times that of John Lewis, £19.7bn compared to just £1.4bn. In terms of the size of the organisation, therefore, RBS bonuses are pretty trifling.
Which is how it should be, given the bank's losses this year. Of course, not all parts of the business make losses, and it is reasonable that staff in the profitable bits should be paid proportionately. Even if some divisions are losing money, you might still want to keep paying them well, depending on how you think things will go in the future, and how much of an investment you have made in hiring and training up those staff members – not to mention keeping them out of the clutches of your competitors.
Bonuses are actually a good way for an up-and-down business like a bank to manage their remuneration. Instead of paying high basic wages and having to lay skilled staff off when things go bad, you can simply slim their bonus, knowing that many or most will hang on in the hope of getting larger bonuses when things turn up again.
But it is interesting that a bank can pay bonuses of less than a thirtieth of its turnover and everyone thinks it's wicked, and a 'partnership' can pay bonuses of a seventh of its turnover and everyone thinks it's a national treasure. Shows you how this argument is all about politics rather than economic and business reality.