Is it curtains for big executive pay?

  • 8 May 2012
  • From the section Business
  • comments
Media captionFTSE 100 bosses' pay 'rose 11% last year'

Today Andrew Moss quit as chief executive of the insurance giant Aviva.

Last week, Sly Bailey announced she would be standing down from the newspaper group Trinity Mirror.

And in the previous week, the early departure of David Brennan from his role as boss of the pharmaceutical giant, AstraZeneca, was announced.

Three's a trend, they say. But what is the trend?

It is fashionable to view the current spate of resignations as being a response to complaints from shareholders about big pay.

Image caption Investors had criticised the level of Andrew Moss's pay packet

Which is understandable, since investors have been highly critical of the remuneration of Mr Moss and Ms Bailey - and Aviva suffered the humiliation last week of losing a vote on its executive remuneration package.

But actually that's not the trend.

The departures are a response to criticism by shareholders of what they see as the poor performance of the relevant companies. In these circumstances, executive rewards often become the specific object of shareholder unhappiness, because of the perceived unfairness that top executives should be handsomely rewarded when their respective businesses are performing in average way or worse.

Shareholders are saying that if they're not being enriched, executives should not be sleeping on huge piles of cash.

In other words, the trend is of growing activism by shareholders to prevent unmerited rewards, or excessive pay relative to how the business is doing. It is not a campaign against big pay per se.

If you need convincing on this point, read the statement made by John MacFarlane, the deputy chairman of Aviva, who is becoming the chairman of the insurer in July and will take Mr Moss's executive duties till a permanent replacement is found. Mr Macfarlane said:

"My first priorities are to regain the respect of our shareholders by eliminating the discount in our share price".

Image caption Trinity Mirror's Sly Bailey also faced a potential shareholder revolt

And he then goes on to list a set of priorities, such as an assessment of which of Aviva's businesses can "generate superior returns over the cycle", which are all about creating the conditions for a rise in the company's share price.

So, as I said on the Today Programme, those who think and hope that what's going on will lead to a significant reduction in the rewards for executives in general may be disappointed.

The influential investors to whom I have spoken are not opposed to big executive pay per se. They are against what they see as unmerited big pay, or pay that's not properly linked to the performance of the business (and see what I wrote about the row over executive pay at Barclays for more on this).

Now it is possible that the collective decision of British pension funds and life insurers to become more actively involved in the governance of companies may end the inflation of executive rewards or even lead to a bit of deflation.

But if that happens, it is because shareholders will have finally lost patience with the disproportionate distribution of corporate profits between them and executives, after more than a decade of rewards for executives rising much faster than rewards for shareholders.

What we are seeing, however, is not a great revolt by fund managers against the idea that individuals who are stewards of other people's assets should ever be paid millions.

Fund managers themselves are stewards of other people's money in a way that is not dissimilar to the role played by the executives of public companies: to coin the golden rule of stock-market capitalism, turkeys rarely vote for Christmas.