James Moore: New conservative Barclays plans to lull investors back to sleep

Outlook. Plus: We don't need to pay executives like Messi, and Who knows whom to back in Bumi saga
  • @TheIndyBusiness

It's a cliché that the City doesn't like surprises, so there probably won't be too many when Antony Jenkins unveils his new strategy for Barclays today. The bank has adroitly made sure that the market knows what to expect; something for the City (cost cuts), something for the public (closure of tax business, no more profits from rising food prices), a small curve ball or two to keep everyone interested, and the odd sideswipe at Mr Jenkins' predecessors to add a bit of spice for the press corps.

But the general thrust of the presentation will be that Barclays will become a more conservative institution which will focus on businesses capable of generating sustainable returns for shareholders rather than reliably fat bonuses for investment bankers regardless of their impact on the bank's reputation.

Investors, who have been riding Barclays unusually hard recently, will walk away happy. And if those cost cuts and promises of better management lead to an improving share price and dividend and fewer entanglements with regulators, they'll go back to sleep. Which is what they'd been doing for the decade leading up to the financial crisis. Which is what they're still doing with a lot of their other bank shareholdings.

If shareholders had been asking the right questions about bonuses, about risk-taking, about capital, five years ago, 10 years ago, would we be in the state we are now?

But because banks' crazy risks generated crazy returns, the institutions lapped it up as the money rolled in and made their funds look good. There was so much of that money sloshing around that they didn't care that most of it was lining the pockets of investment bankers because share prices kept rising.

They've taken more of an interest in engaging with Barclays recently, because Barclays is in the public eye and riding Barclays makes them look good. Even so, their engagement is not as active as it might be, at least according to the chairman, Sir David Walker.

And if they're not doing enough at Barclays, what of the other banks? Share prices across the sector have again been rising, so the probable answer is not much. Institutions are again content to sit back, keep quiet, and watch the sector sort itself out without much input from them. Fund managers know that if they keep themselves hidden under bushels no one will ask awkward questions about the bonuses they enjoy. Or about compensation ratios that make investment banks look positively parsimonious.

We don't need to pay executives like Messi

Talking of pay, the High Pay Commission has nailed one of the myths used to justify the ridiculous rises executives enjoy; the one that holds that there is an "international market" for their services.

It was most recently used by the aforementioned Sir David before the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. He fretted that Mr Jenkins, then sitting next to him, might depart for sunnier climes if Barclays didn't pay up.

That, Sir David, isn't likely to happen. The commission looked at 489 global companies. Only four chief executives were poached while they were boss of a company in a foreign country, while 14 more were hired from overseas while they weren't sitting chief executives.

Another myth is that we have to pay up to keep up with the Americans. Not true. None of the 142 North American companies examined had hired from outside their continent. Even in Western Europe, less than 10 per cent of the 153 companies studied hired a CEO who had been working in a different country.

Ah, but, the defenders of High Pay say, these are still uniquely talented people. The Lionel Messis of their world.

The thing is, while football is a team game, Barcelona's talismanic striker would be brilliant if he played for Brighton Athletic. And Brighton would surely be better with him (stop drooling, Seagulls). The influence on a CEO on a much, much bigger team of players is far harder to quantify and much more reliant on factors outside their control, particularly economic ones.

The other point to note is that if Messi misses a sitter (he does very occasionally) you're unlikely to see him complaining that he didn't know where the goal was or what the goalie was doing. Contrast that with what you hear from banking CEOs when scandals emerge on their watches.

Who knows whom to back in Bumi saga

Another week begins, another brick is lobbed at the board of Bumi by the miner's founder, Nat Rothschild.

"A vote for the existing board is a vote for the Bakrie concert party," he trumpeted, urging shareholders to back his slate of new directors (including himself) at his EGM.

The Bakries, if you haven't followed this depressing saga, are the Indonesian family which reversed some of their mining assets into Vallar, a cash shell floated in London by Mr Rothschild that became Bumi. The relationship went rapidly downhill amid claims of sharp practice on both sides. Shareholders lost billions.

This is a business that should never have been allowed to float. And yet, no one seems much interested in reviewing what went on, or ensuring that there isn't a repeat. A lot of people in the City got paid when Vallar/Bumi floated. That's what counts and London's reputation can go hang.

Which side do you back now? It's a Hobson's choice. Hence Pirc suggesting shareholders back any candidate who qualifies as independent under the Combined Code on Corporate Governance, Mr Rothschild's nominee as chief executive (he's better qualified than the incumbent) while abstaining on the current Bakrie-linked chairman as long as he quits (as promised).

Whether any of them can be relied upon to fight for independent shareholders who have lost money is open to question. But at least you'd be left with a board that followed the rules on paper.