Leading Article: Thin excuses for fat cats

Share
Related Topics
ONE OF THE guiding principles of Britain's Tory governments since 1979 has been that top people should be well-rewarded. If incentives were sufficient, executives would fly high and create wealth, the argument ran. Their rewards might seem excessive and unfair to ordinary people but they, too, would benefit - in the famous phrase, wealth would 'trickle down'. We know now that this was piffle. Pay packages of pounds 500,000 a year upwards have become commonplace for company directors, yet a fifth of the population is worse off than it was 15 years ago. Far from trickling down, the money has been swilling around in the boardroom trough. The beneficiaries are well-known. Peter Wood, chief executive of Direct Line, the insurance company ( pounds 18.2m); Lord Hanson, chairman of Hanson plc ( pounds 1.3m last year); Bob Bauman, chief executive of SmithKline Beecham ( pounds 2.1m); Michael Green, chairman of Carlton Communications ( pounds 630,000); Martin Taylor, new chief executive of Barclays Bank ( pounds 737,000); Lord Young, former Tory minister and now chairman of Cable and Wireless ( pounds 863,000); Sir Ian MacLaurin, head of Tesco ( pounds 967,000). As one current case shows, even the chief executive of a quite small company can now expect at least pounds 225,000, including bonus, even though the business has plunged, in a few months, from break- even to heavy loss.

Last week, as ministers struggled to square their calls for pay restraint among public sector workers with continuing evidence of executive greed in the private sector, the Prime Minister did not even bother to trot out the old trickle down argument. We are 'a free capitalist country in which companies determine their wages', he told the Commons. Free, perhaps. But not fair.

This is best illustrated by the use of the word 'competitive'. When companies talk about being 'competitive', they usually mean screwing down wages or sacking workers or both. They must reduce labour costs, they argue, to avoid losing market share to rivals. But at boardroom level, the word, along with the argument, is stood on its head. Paying 'competitive' salaries and bonuses means paying more than your rivals. Otherwise, your top executives may defect, probably overseas. The reality is that most British executives lack the know-how, language skills or inclination to work in comparable jobs abroad and, except in America, the remuneration package is unlikely to be higher. But reality rarely intrudes.

The simple reason - and the whole secret of the top executive merry-go-round - is that company directors award pay rises to each other. The only significant check is from non-executive directors but they are usually executives of other companies who have every interest in ensuring that their equivalents are well- rewarded. Several studies have failed to find any relation whatever between top executives' pay rises and company success. In 1991-92, top companies gave their directors an average of 13 per cent extra while average profits fell by 7 per cent. Sometimes, true, executives do so badly that they get sacked. But most people would be happy to lose their jobs on the normal boardroom terms. Two years' worth of those inflated salaries is usually paid in compensation. Why should a director object when he may be next in the firing line? Then there are share options, whereby directors allow each other to buy shares cheap at a moment of their own choosing in order to sell them at a fat profit, sometimes running into millions of pounds. In this way, top executives tend to benefit disproportionately from takeover bids.

All this might be acceptable if the beneficiaries were indeed wealth creators. But those who design and make, refine and improve, market and sell a product - engineers, scientists, television programme makers - are often not those who get the biggest share profits, largest company cars and most generous severance terms. In British companies, the finance director nearly always does better than (say) the chief engineer. And in recent years this inequality between the boardroom and the professionals who really count has grown at least as much as the inequality between executives and shopfloor. This is why John Major, if he wants to run a successful capitalist country, must find ways to curtail the freedoms so widely abused in company boardrooms.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions