Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Is Curbing Executive Pay the Right Thing to do?

Vince Cable is in his element. He has the sort of face that seems to say he has it in for someone and he has. In his line of fire are the executives of public owned companies and he is proposing to curb their pay. His reasoning is that over the last few years the combined performance of the top companies in Britain in terms of share price has been static at best while in that period executive pay has risen 13% each year, every year. He has a point.

Or has he? After all these companies have survived a recession, haven't they? And we should be glad of that. Besides, the incentive schemes that executives may be on could be bottom line related and we all know that share price has not always reflected the actual performance of companies in terms of profit making but is more a barometer of the market generally - perhaps more exactly, the sentiment of a select few traders of shares in the world and dastardly computer systems.

It also belittles how a company may be managed in terms of its performance measures. After all, some companies may be going through a transition and require large investment and less profit for a while, others may actually measure profit per head which may increase despite overall profits decreasing. Key Performance Indicators may vary from company to company depending on market conditions and just looking at share price is a very narrow way of assessing the overall success or lack of it for companies. But Vince Cable does have a point.

We have seen spectacular pay offs for executives who fail rapidly and monumentally - take Fred Goodwin for one. But it is becoming the norm. The faster and more effectively you fail, the more you can get in terms of a severance package - so why succeed? This is something most of us find abhorrent in modern day business.

It would seem the way forward being proposed is to reward long term share performance and to let shareholders have some kind of binding say in the matter. That's not always practicable. After all, the significant shareholders in companies may be pension funds managed by well-off mangers who actually only look at a short window of up to 5 years maximum. Why would these significant shareholders vote against a pay award if there are not in for the long run? It may be fanciful to believe that small shareholders can actually club together and organise a revolt that's binding as there may be thousands of individuals to organise.

And what happens when the markets recover? Business will boom and everyone will want the most hung-ho, highly rewarded executive no matter what. Worrying about exact pay now is only a symptom of the austere times we are in. When Britain's back on its legs, no one will worry how filthy rich an executive gets so long as we are all earning something. Isn't that right?

Anyway, lets' get to the nub of this matter. What we are all unhappy about is not so much executive pay but the pay of a thin wedge of incredibly well paid people in the finance sector. In truth, the finance sector only accounts for around 9% of our GDP, yet there is a disproportionate amount of money earned by specific staff within that sector, nearly all working in the City. These are the people who over the last 15 years have hardly increased share price, netted out the profits of their companies to zero at best and in many cases drove their companies to the brink of oblivion. Yet in that same period they earned on average around £3m each and it is rising this year to around £4m each.

Let's face it, these are the people who have made sure that we have extra tax to pay for the next 30 years. Even as we speak, the CEO of RBS, Stephen Hester, will receive a substantial bonus even though the value of our 83% holding in the company is still showing over a 40% loss.

These companies and their high earning staff remain untouchable. They are supposedly regulated by the FSA whose own staff actually received bonuses as they presided over the implosion of the British banking system and their response was to pick on the array of Independent Financial Advisers and drive most of them out of business while bank executives named their salaries and bonuses despite owing us a fortune.

No, Vince, you are looking in the wrong direction. Focus on what's really wrong first before hacking at the general melee of executives. There is a specific, massive problem that affects each and every one of us because we underwrite their failure. We have skin in the game. Our call is to pick on bank traders and executives first - curb the way they earn, how they earn, what its paid for and what they can trade. Then pick on the other guys who also do need curbing too.

The price of failure in banking is always laid upon the general retail banking staff and the taxpayer. And failure wins bonuses. With logic like that, banks should be the first port of call.

No comments: