Simon English: A few rebellions but the City gravy train is likely to chug along as normal
Thursday 10 May 2012
Outlook The phrase shareholder spring is already a cliche that should probably be banned by all self-respecting journals. We won't know for sure whether it is a meaningful revolution, a genuine shift in the power relationship between owners and managers, until Vince Cable's law making protest votes on pay binding becomes law (if it ever does).
I'm going to guess this is just a blip. In retrospect it will turn out to have been a brief period when some companies' performance was so awful than even City fund managers felt obliged to at least make a show of being annoyed at executive pay.
The shareholder spring will only turn into an investors' autumn if chief executive pay becomes genuinely linked to performance, or else just shoved notably downwards.
Most likely what will occur is that there will continue to be a serious-looking "rebellion" every once in a while that will allow small shareholders to feel that their views are taken seriously. To give the impression that this is a fair fight. Meanwhile the City gravy train will peep-peep along as normal.
One national newspaper has been writing – by my reckoning – the following story at least once a week for the last 10 years: Major clampdown on executive pay imminent. Given that these stories appeared during a period when executive pay boomed and kept booming, you could see the relentless pursuit of them as doggedly heroic, if, sadly, completely wrong.
Isolated cases aside, the way to bet is that executive pay will keep rising in the next few years, especially for bankers. The pay deals coming down the line for top banking bosses are truly extraordinary.
If you think you're mad now at what financiers make – wait. That's because five years ago, before the crash, bankers' bonuses and pay were mostly in cash. Almost as if they thought bank shares were overvalued. Now there's been a shift to insist that bankers take payment in shares which are presently undervalued. When Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group properly recover and the shares return to something like normal, the payouts are going to be phenomenal.
Chief executives not in banking will point to those rewards and say, hey, that's the new going rate for folk such as me... Remuneration committees will buckle. Steam will emerge from the ears of Vince Cable and others who expect life to be equitable. Everyone else will shrug: same as it ever was. Just a bit worse.
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