Do Bankers Deserve Bonuses? Discuss
Let's talk about getting very rich, with news of investment bonanzas and company executives on vast earnings - before I set you a challenge fit for a 13-year-old schoolgirl.
First, this might seem a tad insensitive at a time when many of us are facing falling real earnings. The trade union backed High Pay Commission today published a report saying FTSE100 chief executives are earning 145 times more than the median full-time wage of £25,800.
But this is great news if you're a shareholder in two of Aberdeen's oil services giants, and not so bad if you're at the top of Scottish financial companies Standard Life and Alliance Trust.
First, let's turn to RBG, based in Aberdeen and specialising in inspecting and maintaining oil platforms and rigs.
Its corporate roots go back to 1975 when Rigblast started out. It's been announced today that RBG is being bought by Stork, a Dutch company already in that field and backed by Candover investments. The value and structuring of the deal isn't being disclosed.
It was reported to be worth about £200m last year, and it's been expanding fast. Being in the business of extending the lifespan of ageing oil and gas assets, power stations and chemical plants, and getting into the business of decommissioning at the end of life, it's very well placed to grow.
So if that reported figure is true, it's particularly good news - worth about £80m - for its chairman John Ray, majority shareholder of Ashley Group, the Aberdeen company with a 50% stake in RBG.
It's good news for RBG and its 4,900 employees - 3,000 of them in Scotland - if it's being taken over for its strengths rather than targeted for its weaknesses. But it means yet another major corporate headquarters is leaving Scotland.
And it's a much bigger payday for Sir Ian Wood and his family, 22% owners of Wood Group, with confirmation of the £1bn-plus shareholder return - based on a buy-back shares - now that its well support division to GE has been finalised.
There was a failure to agree terms for Wood Group and GE to work together on other projects, but the breakdown in those talks last week delivered another £31m from GE. Some failure!
Very nice for the Rays and the Woods, but there's a bit more discomfort for those earning slightly less colossal sums at Alliance Trust and Standard Life.
This Friday in Dundee, Katherine Garrett-Cox, chief executive of Alliance Trust, faces a challenge to company strategy from activist hedge fund investor Laxey Partners.
It has been pushing the investment company to buy back shares as a means of reducing the discount at which it's been trading - which means pushing up the share price closer to the valuation of its portfolio. To some extent, it's already being successful, with buybacks under way.
Laxey has made it rather personal, raising questions about Ms Garrett-Cox's earnings, which have done rather better than the company. Last year, she secured 69% of her potential bonus, raising her total earnings by a third to £843,000.
Perhaps that was one reason why her promise last month to "come out fighting" against Laxey led to a strangely silent period. Alliance Trust seems to have figured out that Laxey was going to lose its resolution at the Dundee AGM, and has chosen to take a low-key approach to winning the hearts and minds of investor shareholders.
What marks this company out is the wide base of retail investors who have a say. Ultra-conservative Dundonian publisher and investor DC Thomson owns nearly 6% of Alliance Trust, Legal & General has 4%, while there are 44,000 retail investors each wielding a vote, many of them Scots who have stuck with the Dundee investment trust down the generations.
It's not an easy place for activist investors to stir things up, but it does raise questions - which aren't currently being answered - about the progress of the Garrett-Cox turnaround project at Alliance Trust. Maybe she'll have more to say after the AGM.
Raising the Pay Standard
As for Standard Life, it's changed its remuneration for senior executives, and the Association of British Insurers has issued an alert to its member organisations that they might not like the implications of shifting to 90% of the bonus being based on share performance. A similar warning had already come from PIRC, which advises pension fund managers on shareholder issues.
It's all the more embarrassing as Standard Life is itself among the more activist institutional investors when it comes to questioning others' pay packages.
At its AGM in Edinburgh tomorrow, it may face some of the same questions that it puts to others, particularly on the top two men at the pensions and life assurance giant.
David Nish, in his first year as chief executive, earned £720,000 basic salary. With his bonus, the 2010 package reaches £1.97m. The previous year, his predecessor, Sir Sandy Crombie, was on £1.76m
The head of Standard Life Investments, Keith Skeoch, has a salary of £369,000, and his bonus is a whole lot bigger, taking him up to £1.87m.
Who will have to take the flak on that? Possibly Crawford Gillies, chairman of Standard Life's remuneration committee - and when he's not doing that, he's chairing development agency Scottish Enterprise.
Bank bonuses for a 13-year-old
Another AGM in Scotland this week that's facing a rocky reception from shareholders is that of Lloyds Banking Group. Its corporate rules state that AGMs have to be held in Scotland, for historic reasons to do with the Trustee Savings Bank that are almost certainly exasperating Lloyds' new chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio.
What's exasperating his shareholders - which, remember, includes all of us in the British public - is his "golden hello" or "hola dorada" of more than £13m.
And that brings to mind a challenge I've been set by a 13-year-girl from Edinburgh. She's doing a school project titled: "Do Bankers Deserve Bonuses?"
She read The Ledger from some weeks back and wrote to me with disarming bluntness: "I found it quite hard to understand. I was just wondering if you could help explain it for me in more simple terms".
I've been pondering this, and it's a challenge I've decided... to hand over to you.
So in no more than the length of a text message - that's 160 characters - the question is not whether they deserve big bonuses. That's far too easy.
The challenge is to explain, for the benefit of a 13-year old Edinburgh girl, why bankers get such big bonuses
You can add your entries to the Ledger below, or email me: email@example.com
Twelve percent against the may not seem much of a revolt, but it's a significant warning shot to Standard Life bosses.
That was the share of the shareholder vote rejecting the remuneration committee's report at today's AGM - saying 'no' to those big bonuses and changes to executive pay.
While 32% of shareholder votes were in play, a further 4% refused to give the board its backing.