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Do Bankers Deserve Bonuses? Discuss

Douglas Fraser | 18:04 UK time, Monday, 16 May 2011

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.

£31m failure

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.

Alliance Trusted

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:

UPDATE: 17/05/2011

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    bankers live in there own wee world of self importance with the scary bit being these self righteous idiots actually think they deserve these bonuses and the others think it is there god given right to get them .
    if cutting the bonuses means they go and live somewhere else in the world to play with other peoples money then fine I for one will not shed a tear.

  • Comment number 3.

    It appear contemptuous that these people are still unashamedly still reaping the benefits of ruining the banking system cascading debt the public have to pay off. I can now understand 'bloody revolution' because thats whats needed including government who sit back and allow their cronies to get away with it.

  • Comment number 4.

    When they made the rules, banks thought profits were endless. A bonus was the prize for winning your share. They were wrong: but pay hasn't caught up yet.

  • Comment number 5.

    Bankers prefer bonuses to investing in new companies especially if they're involved in manufacturing something. It's all part of their master plan to prevent the rebalancing of the economy and to enable them to keep on providing credit to buy foreign goods.

  • Comment number 6.

    Perfect Crime! I mean how many are residents of HMP! I ken some yanks in other parts of the global finance industry got caught with their fingers in the till, some in DPRC had the key thrown away, and some in CIS (former USSR) are sick of the sight of salt. But dear old UK, let them go and do it all again.............

  • Comment number 7.

    Re the question of bankers deserving bonuses..... sadly it would appear the answer to be as simple as - THEY think they do, and manage to convince others who set the rules that THEY do!!!

  • Comment number 8.

    We need a Government with a little backbone to challenge the mythology around so-called executive pay. With the minimum wage, we now have a pay-floor and it is about time we created a pay-ceiling.
    After all we are all "in this mess together" - err, aren't we?
    Bankers and CEOs say that "if you pay peanuts, you'll get monkeys". In my experience, most Bankers and CEOs are simply rich monkeys with levels of self-estemm that requires deflating.
    Of course, the rich monkeys may seek opportunities overseas.
    Let them - they don't pay tax here anyway.
    Slainte Mhor


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