Leading fund managers, including L&G and Jupiter, have stepped up their attack against huge pay rises at the UK’s biggest banks.
In recent weeks, several of the UK’s biggest investment groups have met bank boards to urge them to restrain pay and restructure the way they reward staff, especially within their investment banking arms.
Barclays, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS are among the banks to have been targeted, the Financial Times reports.
According to the paper, there is anger at the rapid rise in fixed salaries against a back-drop of declining investment bank revenues and falling share prices.
Legal & General and Jupiter Asset Management are among a number of influential investors engaged in discussions with the big banks.
Sacha Sadan, corporate governance director at Legal & General Investment Management, told the Financial Times: “We want the banks to make the highest returns. If banks choose to retain their earnings rather than pay them out in dividends, that is fine. But the leakage into bankers’ bonuses while returns are low is not fine. In a tough political and economic environment pay restraint seems to be the only solution.”
Emma Howard Boyd, head of corporate governance at Jupiter Asset Management, added: “We, along with a number of our peers, believe there is substantial value to be unlocked in UK bank shares if they can convince the market that shareholder returns take priority over employee compensation.”
Meanwhile, in its latest attempt to crack down on excessive pay, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) has written to all UK banks demanding they cut individual pay-outs and overhaul their remuneration structures.
Executives at the largest UK companies have seen their salaries rising at a rate that is hard to justify when compared with their company’s performance. When large numbers of employees and smaller company executives are facing pay freezes or cuts it is particularly galling to see senior executives in some sectors seemingly rewarded for their incompetence.
This is most markedly apparent in the banking sector where the architects of the biggest global recession in history not only seem to be unaffected by the economic constraints that they have created but still appear to be doing rather well.
It is clear that the problem of rapidly increasing executive pay is primarily an issue for the largest stock market-listed corporations. There is little evidence of similar pay inflation in small and medium-sized companies. In the current difficult economic environment, the company directors of most SMEs are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. Pay at such enterprises is inevitably tied to performance whether they like it on not.
So, whose fault is it that senior executives in large corporations are paid way beyond their level of competence and what can be done about it?
The executive pay process at larger companies is typically led by a sub-committee of the board of directors: the remuneration committee. According to the UK Corporate Governance Code, members of the remuneration committee should be independent non-executive directors. The intention of this code requirement is to ensure that executive pay is set by a group of individuals with an informed but objective (and unconflicted) perspective regarding the best interests of the company.
Despite their independent composition, remuneration committees have in recent years experienced significant challenges in ensuring a strong link between executive pay and company performance. Increased globalisation has given rise to a global market for executive talent with associated globally defined remuneration levels. An individual remuneration committee may be faced with the dilemma of losing the services of a key member of the management team if they do not respond to such market expectations. This could have major implications for the achievement of the company’s strategy.
Greater transparency and disclosure of executive remuneration has also – despite good intentions – exerted an upward ratcheting effect on top-manager pay. Senior executives understandably wish to be paid at levels equivalent to their peers in similar companies. With increased transparency, they are in a good position to know if this is the case and, if not, demand an increase in their remuneration levels.
Given these challenges, what is to be done? Three principles should be used to improve the legitimacy of executive pay: greater simplicity, greater accountability and greater diversity.
Greater simplicity is an essential prerequisite for the improved governance of executive pay. In an attempt to align the interests of executives with those of shareholders, executive remuneration packages have, over the last decade, become ever more complex and opaque. This trend has been encouraged by the growing role of remuneration consultants in advising remuneration committees. In the midst of such complexity, it has been increasingly difficult to keep track of the implications for total executive pay over time.
In response to this problem, remuneration committees and shareholders need to do a better job in demanding a simpler approach to executive remuneration. The variable component of executive pay should be clearly linked to a small number of longer-term performance indicators which are easy to justify and measure. Annual reports should demonstrate in a straightforward manner how the achievement of these performance criteria could feed into total remuneration levels.
Greater accountability should be introduced through the earlier involvement of shareholders in the approval of executive pay. At the current time, shareholders vote to approve executive pay – on an advisory basis – after it has been awarded. However, shareholders could offer their perspective on the structure of the remuneration policy – including the associated performance indicators – prior to its adoption. This would ensure that there were no nasty surprises after any pay award had been made.
Finally, a greater degree of diversity on boards would assist remuneration committees in making more socially grounded decisions on executive pay. This is not only about increasing gender diversity on boards. It is also about bringing exceptional individuals from different professional backgrounds on to the boards of large listed companies as independent non-executive directors.
Most non-executives tend to be serving or former senior executives from other companies. Although the business expertise of such individuals is invaluable, their perspectives may reflect their own personal expectations in respect of executive remuneration. Their contribution should therefore be balanced by the presence of a more diverse group of well-trained decision-makers.
He suggested that shareholders’ voting rights should vary depending on how long the shares had been held and also questioned whether companies’ long-term strategy was undermined by having to produce quarterly reports.
He also repeated his call for there to be an employee on the remuneration committee of every major company and criticised the government‘s plans to make it more difficult for staff to take employers to employment tribunals, saying that the government was only offering “more of the same” in its backing for a “hire and fire” mentality.
As previously discussed in these pages, the idea of having an employee on remuneration committees is a bit of a non-starter given the difficulty of electing someone in an organisation of several thousand employees to be in any way representative and totally misses the point of having non-executives.
Similarly impractical is the idea of linking shareholder voting rights to the length of time the shares have been held – a nightmare for registrars and company secretaries with questionable benefits to corporate governance.
With regard to long term strategy perhaps he might like to consider whether long term political strategy is undermined by having to have elections every 5 years.
Family businesses in the United Kingdom are less likely to fail than their non-family counterparts, according to new research.
Entitled UK family businesses: industrial and geographical context, governance and performance, the report found that family firms – be it small, medium or large – have lower rates of insolvency than non-family owned businesses.
The survey, which analysed more than three million privately held firms in the UK between 2007 and 2009 and was conducted by the universities of Nottingham and Leeds for the Institute for Family Business Research Foundation, also suggests that family run companies are less likely to dissolve.
“Our analysis indicates that although family firms may be smaller than non-family firms and perhaps do not grow to the same extent, they are more able to withstand recession, and perhaps this is their most important feature,” said Dr Louise Scholes, co-author of the report, in a statement.
Corporate governance was also considered important by family businesses, with almost 20% of the companies involving more non-family directors than family at board level. Women were prominent, with 44% of family-owned businesses employing women as directors, as compared to only around 30% of non-family companies.
When it comes to the industry of operation, family-controlled groups tend to focus on certain sectors, found the report. While more worked in agriculture and fishing (44%), manufacturing, food and beverages, textile, retail, and motor vehicles, very few families opted to enter industries such as electricity, gas, transport and education.
Family businesses in the survey are those where the family owns more than 50% of the shares and at least one family member is a director of the company.