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[August 26, 2014]
Bonus culture must be challenged from the top [Herald, The (Scotland)]
(Herald, The (Scotland) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Is excessive executive pay gradually becoming socially unacceptable? New figures suggest a continuing downward pressure, driven by concerns over shareholder value and the sometimes grotesque inequalities between the best and worst paid in large companies.
The data, from shareholder research experts Manifest, shows that significant minorities continue to object to controversial remuneration policies at company AGMs.
Does this have an impact? It was reported in April that CEO bonuses fell in April for the third consecutive year.
Almost a year ago investors were given a binding vote on future pay and a single figure for each director's pay packet, with the aim of aligning the company's goals with the interests of shareholders.
This is not the politics of envy. There is a balance to be struck in terms of market value. But in a world where a salary of pound(s)100,000 puts someone comfortably in the top few per cent of earners, how can it be justified that Barclays, for example, this year paid nearly 500 bankers pound(s)1m each in bonuses alone? The Manifest figures suggest a continuing anger over bonus culture and disgust at a system which seemingly rewards executives regardless of success or failure.
Such decisions tend to be justified on the basis of paying leaders "the market rate", and that by ensuring that the most talented executives do not go elsewhere, remuneration committees are acting in the interests of shareholders.
It is a convenient argument, because testing it requires gambling that an executive whose expectations are trimmed will stay with a company. Perhaps that is a risk worth taking. For some firms in the financial sector, it is a belatedly cautious attitude to risk, given that the financial crisis was precipitated by reckless trading.
Such vast rewards, out of kilter with any notion of performance, have left the public with a sense that the imbalance between the haves and the have-nots in the workplace has simply become unfair.
It has become apparent that executives themselves are unable to exercise pay restraint. Meanwhile banks have already found ways of getting round laws to restrict bonuses.
Shareholder revolts are an encouraging sign, with a willingness to challenge excessive pay having emerged in the "shareholder spring" of 2012 when AstraZeneca, Trinity Mirror and Barclays Bank were among those to see executive pay plans rejected.
That series of reversals continues to resonate. However it is not reasonable to expect individual shareholders to continually bear the burden of being the conscience of a company. Larger investors must play their part.
Fund manager Fidelity has pledged to vote down policies designed to get around bonus rules, while Standard Life Investments is increasingly outspoken about whether large pay awards are in shareholders' interests.
This is particularly welcome. What is needed is a change of culture. Individual shareholders can reflect the public mood but more large investors are needed to contribute muscle to go with the attitude.
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