Top executives pocket huge bonuses despite recession

Pay consultants voice concern about bonuses and warn of shareholder wrath

FTSE 100 chief executives still took home bonuses equal to 90 per cent of their basic pay, despite plummeting profits and dividends at top companies.

Research by the pay consultancy Hewitt New Bridge Street found that the median salary for a FTSE 100 chief executive was £800,000 last year, meaning the bonus would be £720,000.

It also found that 40 per cent of FTSE 100 companies had handed pay rises to their directors despite the impact of the recession on profits.

David Tankel, principal consultant at Hewitt, said: "While the recession has had its impact on bonus payments, which fell from 2008 levels, bonuses still remained relatively high."

Mr Tankel did find evidence that bonuses were starting to fall – companies with a March 2009 year-end paid less than those with a December 2008 year-end. But he said: "Overall bonus payments are higher than many would have expected. Although bonus payments were lower than in recent years, companies have continued to pay over half of the maximum potential amount during a period when nearly all FTSE 100 companies saw their share price fall and when most companies' profits had been impacted by the recession. This has inevitably raised the question of whether bonus schemes are still linking pay and performance appropriately."

His research into bosses' pay comes at a time of mounting public anger at the level of City remuneration, particularly at banks which have returned to the practice of paying traders multimillion-pound packages despite the £1.2 trillion spent by the taxpayer on bailing out the financial system.

Mr Tankel's comments suggest that the recession has done as little to put a break on boardroom avarice as it has on the traditional type of those working on the trading floor.

One hundred public figures have joined a campaign for a High Pay Commission, which they want to act as a watchdog on high City pay packages. It includes figures such as the Labour MP John Cruddas and the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, Vince Cable.

The campaign, under the auspices of the centre-left Compass Group, calls for steps such as maximum wage ratios and bonus taxes.

Yesterday the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, said that it was "not the Government's role" to intervene in pay negotiations. He said: "I do think that government has a role in trying to stop undesirable practices, such as excessive risk-taking through bonus payments in the banking system where we all stand to lose if that goes wrong. But, generally, I think that pay agreements ought to be reached by employers and employees meeting together."

His comments come despite polls showing that the public wants to see action taken to curb City excesses.

The Hewitt research pointed out that companies failing to act on shareholder concern about pay have been embarrassed.

Shell, the oil major, saw its remuneration report voted down by shareholders in May after tweaking its bonus pay plan so that executives would be paid despite failing to hit targets, in what was the most prominent show of dissent this year.

But such votes have been criticised because they continue to hold only advisory status and do not have to be acted upon.

The Hewitt research found that executive pay issues are likely to remain problematic into 2010, with the majority of companies likely to post results for 2009 that are worse than the previous year.

Mr Tankel said that salary rises were unlikely to come in ahead of inflation or workforce pay settlements. However, he added: "Issues around bonus payments are more difficult to predict. If this year's trend of above target bonuses continues despite what is forecast as lower year-on-year financial figures, then we would expect investors to question bonus structures and demand significantly enhanced disclosure on bonus targets.

"Companies that are seen as paying bonuses that bear little reflection to the company's performance may well find themselves in very hot water."

Mr Tankel said he believed that the "pay for performance" model was appropriate but argued that "it must be operated properly and be seen to be operating properly".

The research found that variable pay – made up of an annual bonus and long-term share-based incentives – accounts for about 60 per cent of a FTSE executive's pay, up from 45 per cent in 2003. Some 60 per cent is linked to long-term performance, compared to 50 per cent in 2003.

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