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Executive pay: are the days of golden packages numbered?

By Christine Mallin


The disquiet over excessive executive remuneration packages and a lack of appropriate links with relevant performance measures has been a matter of concern in recent years.  After the financial crisis, there is even more of a focus on this aspect with shareholders becoming increasingly frustrated with both the amount and the design of executive remuneration packages.

Recent trends

The latest Manifest and MM&K Total Remuneration Survey 2011 finds little link between remuneration, performance and shareholder value, reporting that the median FTSE100 CEO remuneration increased by 32% to £3.5million in 2010 compared to 2009, whilst the FTSE100 index only rose 9% over the same period.  Moreover over a 12 year time horizon, CEO remuneration has quadrupled whilst share prices have been flat.

In the US, the BDO 600: 2011 Survey of Board Compensation Practices of 600 Mid-Market Public Companies reported that ‘director pay in the middle market is up seven percent, reflecting the increased responsibilities, time commitment, and regulatory issues – such as the Dodd-Frank Act – that boards face today’. The report states that these factors, coupled with a rebounding stock market, have allowed companies to increase director pay to $110,155, up from $102,809 in 2009, and that much of this increase can be attributed to a greater use of full-value equity vehicles, which are up 22% from last year, indicating that the recovering stock market is adding to compensation growth overall.

Issues of concern

Concern has been expressed at a number of companies where shareholders have thought that executive directors would receive remuneration in excess of what they deserved in relation to their performance or in relation to the company’s performance.  For example, Andrew Parker highlighted that the Association of British Insurers (ABI) issued an ‘amber top’ to alert shareholders about a number of issues at C&W including aspects of the planned new pay scheme at C&W Worldwide.  The ABI was concerned that ‘given C&W Worldwide’s depressed stock price, the chief executive and finance director could be awarded too many performance shares’.

Robert Wright stated that that Mr Coucher, the former CEO of Network Rail, had defended the £1.07m payout that he received on leaving the company saying that it represented a payment in lieu of his notice period and the bonuses he would have received if he had been allowed to work his notice period after resigning.

In some companies chief executives have forfeited their bonus if the company has not performed to expected standards.  In an article for the FT Andrew Parker pointed out that Dido Harding, chief executive of TalkTalk, had secured only 20% of her maximum potential bonus in 2010/11 as there were ‘acute customer service problems’.  Justin King, the CEO of J. Sainsbury, saw his salary and bonus fall significantly because the company did not achieve key profit targets, reported Andrea Felsted.

Elsewhere Vodafone has decided to place more emphasis on profit improvement in its executive pay plan.  Andrew Parker reported that greater account would be taken in future of profit-based targets by reducing the relative importance of revenue-based targets.

Banking and insurance sector

In the banking and insurance sector, some banks have slashed cash bonuses, for example, Michiyo Nakamoto reported that Japan’s largest investment bank, Nomura, had slashed the cash bonuses paid to its top executives and directors by 95% after suffering a decline in profits and its share price.  As a result only 6 out of 23 directors/executives received a cash bonus in the year to March 2011.  Patrick Jenkins reported that nearly three-quarters of banks and insurers in Europe have introduced a system to withhold bonuses from staff if their performance does not match up to expectations.  One of the contributors to the financial crisis was thought to be overly generous short-term bonuses, and many banks have decided to put in place a system of deferred payments. There are also malus or clawback arrangements which may be used, for example, for a breach of code of conduct.

Increased use of ‘say on pay’

The use of ‘say on pay’, whereby shareholders have an advisory vote on executive pay proposals (remuneration committee report), has been utilised much more in recent months.  Tim Bradshaw and Kate Burgess highlighted that WPP had a large shareholder revolt when over 40% of shareholders voted against the WPP pay policies. They report that one large fund manager stated ‘Investors are increasingly concerned by salary creep.  It is a topical issue at the moment.  Some companies seem to think after a couple of years of restraint that they can claw back the pay rises they would have got’.  Roger Blitz points out that some 38% of votes cast either opposed or did not endorse the group’s remuneration report, with Ralph Topping, the Chief Executive, receiving a salary increase of 11% and shares worth £1.2m by way of a ‘golden handcuffs’ retention payment.

In the US, the say on pay has also been used frequently in recent weeks, as Dan McCrum found. He reports that Hewlett-Packard and Jacobs Engineering saw their pay packages rejected outright whilst Monsanto and Northern Trust faced stiff shareholder protest votes, during this, the first year that large public companies have been required to have an advisory vote on executive compensation as part of the Dodd Frank legislation.

It may be that, with the advent of a more widespread use of say on pay in a number of markets, the days of golden executive remuneration packages are numbered.

Christine Mallin is Professor of Corporate Governance and Finance and Director of the Centre for Corporate Governance Research at the Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham. She is the author of Corporate Governance, which is now in its third edition. You can read more OUPblog posts by her here.

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