Will executive pay ever be the same again?

Jan 30 2009 by Nic Paton Print This Article

If U.S bankers could not previously smell the change in the air, they certainly should be able to now. Following calculations by the officials in New York State that some $18.4 billion was still paid out in bonuses to financial workers last year even as the system went into meltdown, new president Barack Obama has slammed the Wall Street bonus culture as "shameful".

He has called the payments "the height of irresponsibility" and pledged that his administration would tell bankers they needed to show some discipline and restraint.

His criticisms have come as, on this side of the Atlantic, British politicians are suggesting the best way to curb executive excess is publicly to shame managers into keeping salaries low.

But, while the excess of some bankers is an easy target right now, if the bonus as a concept is to starting to look increasingly unsustainable, how companies intend to motivate, attract and retain top talent in the future remains equally unclear.

A Labour peer, Lord Gavron, has tabled a bill in the UK Parliament that, if made law, will require publicly quoted companies to publish in their annual reports the ratio between how much their highest paid director or executive receives against the total average remuneration of the lowest paid 10 per cent of its workforce.

While the "name and shame" plan is very unlikely to become law unless the government picks it up and runs with it, the simple fact of it being suggested highlights the continuing high level of public anger over executive remuneration.

It also illustrates the likelihood that, by the time we have all emerged on the other side of the global recession, executive pay structures and, crucially, expectations over executive pay and reward may well be very different.

For now at least, while there is some evidence the message finally seems to be getting through, there still also appears to be a long way to go, particularly within the banking community.

According to one of the UK's biggest City investors, Aviva Investors, basic pay for directors rose by 94 per cent since 2000 and total remuneration, including bonuses, rose 259 per cent in the same timeframe.

The company has now called for "considerable restraint and prudence" when it comes to awarding bonuses and deciding top salaries.

The Wall Street bonus research by the financial reporting office of New York State has suggested that, while bonuses on Wall Street fell by 44 per cent last year, some $18.4 billion was still paid out in bonuses to financial workers.

The average payout to financial workers was still $112,000, the fifth largest on record and workers in general took home about as much as they did in 2004, when the Dow Jones industrial average was above 10,000 and on its way to a record high, according to the New York Times.

There was also a question-mark over whether public money being used to bail-out the banks was used to fund any of these bonus payouts.

"The issue of transparency is a significant one, and there needs to be an accounting about whether there was any taxpayer money used to pay bonuses or to pay for corporate jets or dividends or anything else," said state comptroller Thomas P DiNapoli.

The figures come just a day after it emerged UK bank Lloyds discussed rewarding its boardroom staff with big pay rises, despite having received billions of pounds of support from the taxpayer and now being 44 per cent owned by the government.

According to reports, executives believed they were entitled to more generous packages because the bank had become a bigger entity through its merger with rival HBOS.

The proposal was eventually vetoed by shareholders who pointed out it was "not the best time" to be giving out such large rewards.

Executive remuneration was also put firmly in the spotlight last week by UK financial services minister Lord Myners who, in a newspaper interview, strongly criticised big investors for failing to crack down on excessive boardroom pay.

The bonuses paid out by Wall Street have been criticised as "disconcerting" by Harvard Law School professor Lucian A Bebchuk, an expert on executive compensation.

UK remuneration researcher Incomes Data Services has also identified a widening gap between executive compensation and that of other workers.

It has calculated that earnings for FTSE-100 chief executives rose 167 per cent between 2000 and 2008 and 147 per cent for FTSE-250 bosses.

By comparison, the average national average pay rise over the same period for UK's 28 million workers was just 32.2 per cent, it added.

One of the difficulties boardrooms are likely to face if the ratio comparison idea does catch on is how to maintain executive pay and reward at a level that will continue to attract, challenge and keep top talent without the figures simply turning into an annual feeding frenzy for their critics.

The difficulty of this was underlined in 2007 by research by the Institute for Policy Studies and Boston-based United for a Fair Economy.

This found that the CEOs of the 500 largest U.S companies took home an average of $10.8 million in total compensation the year before.

This, they calculated, was about 364 times that of the average American worker, who earned just $29,544 in the same period – and so leading to a slew of critical headlines pointing out that the average CEO earned more in a day than most people made in a year.

The question of "what is the appropriate rate of pay for a CEO?" was one discussed by Management-Issues columnist Bob Selden in the same year and, in the context of the heat and anger surrounding the current debate, is perhaps worth revisiting.

Even then Selden argued that no one seemed yet to have come up with a magic formula.

"As managers, we know that what gets rewarded gets done. So, when CEOs get rewarded with exorbitant salaries, it's only natural they will focus almost exclusively on short-term, bottom-line results," he pointed out.

And his answer? Picking up on suggestions by management philosophy doyen Peter Drucker that CEO salaries ought to be a maximum of 20 times the salary of the lowest worker, Selden also argued that 20 was "the magic number".

Base salary should be a maximum of 20 times that of the lowest paid worker and share of company profits should be limited to a similar proportion.

Team performance rewards, too, should be limited to 20 times the bonus reward for the lowest paid organisational team performance and up to a maximum of 20 per cent of average individual profit share.

And individual reward should in turn be limited to 20 per cent of base salary.

"What gets rewarded, gets done. This approach to remuneration, rewards; teamwork, a sense of community, a drive for performance, and above all a sense of 'we are in this together' – all stakeholders working for the betterment (and rewards) of the organisation," he concluded.