Running to save their executive bacon - alas, it may be too late

Going once, going twice ...

Going once, going twice ...

The chill wind of change is blowing through the boardrooms of our corporate heavyweights as panic starts to set in with the onset of this year's annual reporting season.

For the first time, shareholders - the people who actually own the company - will be able to exercise their right of protest over the obscene levels of pay handed out to those running their companies.

From this year on, if 25 per cent of shareholders vote against the salary packages of executives and directors two years running, the entire board will be spilled.

An unsettling prospect for corporate leaders even in prosperous times, the new rules have collided with a series of unexpected crises that have sharpened the focus on the widening gulf between those running our companies, those who invest in them and those who work for them.

A European debt crisis that threatens to unleash havoc on financial markets and reignite fears about the health of the international banking system has coincided with what appears to be a terminal slowdown in the American economy. In the past two months, stockmarkets have taken a hammering.

The result? A dramatic decline in the fortunes of Australian investors who have suffered massive losses but now are being cajoled into doling out another round of exorbitant pay rises to their employees, the executives and directors.

Before we go any further, an important point needs to be made. As mentioned in this space previously, the idea that the exponential growth of corporate salaries is a global phenomenon, and that Australia has no option but to keep pace or lose top management talent, is a myth. It is an outright distortion of the facts.

The corporate salary race is a purely Anglo phenomenon, confined to North America, Britain and Australia. European and Asian executives, even those running multinational corporations, are paid a fraction of the salaries paid in the Anglo sphere.

Never was that more graphically illustrated than three years ago when Japan's biggest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ, took a 21 per cent stake in tarnished Wall Street titan Morgan Stanley, then teetering under the weight of its toxic assets.

The Japanese institution paid its 14 (that's correct, 14) top executives a total of $US8.1 million that year. But John Mack, the man who presided over the Morgan Stanley debacle, took home $US41.4 million the previous year - five times the amount earned by the entire team of top executives at his new parent.

Mind you, while the quest to satiate corporate greed began in America, not all its leaders subscribe to the philosophy.

Berkshire Hathaway's legendary leader, Warren Buffett, for years has heaped scorn on the modern trend to uber-salaries. And the recently deceased Apple founder, Steve Jobs, paid himself an annual salary of $US1, relying instead on dividends to make ends meet.

There have been no such calls from business leaders here.

Fearful of the backlash that may have them turfed out after next year's annual meeting season, instead they have gone on the offensive.

The two main lobby groups, the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Business Council of Australia, came out swinging this week.

According to the AICD, the main groups advising superannuation funds on executive pay were not qualified for the task. The outgoing Business Council leader, Graham Bradley, meanwhile, continued his mantra for lower taxes and workplace reform, a euphemism for reduced wages and conditions for employees.

They have good reason to be fearful. In recent years, proxy advisors - the consultancies that advise super funds on how to vote at annual meetings - have taken a dim view of the executive grab for cash.

CGI Glass, one of the advisory firms, supported just 48 per cent of the remuneration arrangements at the 700-odd companies it examined in 2009. That rose to 56 per cent last year. But that means almost half the firms it examined were given a black mark.

The sudden panic has seen corporations scrambling for advice on how best to cope with the looming backlash, seeking out shareholder communication groups such as Global Proxy Solicitation.

While shareholders have been able to vote down the salary packages in the past couple of years, the vote was non-binding. Directors simply snubbed their noses at the owners and doled out ever greater riches to executives and themselves, regardless of performance.

Telstra under Sol Trujillo was a repeat offender, enraging shareholders with the largesse heaped upon its American imports, among a large number of top 50 companies lashed by shareholders.

Qantas is a classic example of the growing disconnect between shareholders, employees, management and directors.

Employees including pilots have been attempting to negotiate a 5 per cent annual pay rise. But the claim has been dismissed out of hand, even as the Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, had his salary boosted from $2.92 million to $5 million along with a raft of his senior executives who were awarded increases in the order of 40 per cent.

The dispute, which has cost Qantas shareholders $20 million in lost revenue to date, is predicated on the argument that Australian airline employees need to be more flexible if the business is to compete with low-cost Asian operators.

Given the competitive global pressures bearing down on the airline, that is an entirely rational argument. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear to extend through to management.

Compare Joyce's take-home pay with that of the recently retired Singapore Airlines boss, C.S. Chew, who earned $982,000 in his last nine months at the company. Cathay Pacific's former boss Tony Tyler took home $1.4 million while China Southern's president, Tan Wangeng, earned $153,000 last year.

Perhaps the most galling aspect to the latest round of shareholder arm-twisting is the way executive salary is being restructured.

Whenever the stockmarket is booming, the push is on for salaries to comprise mostly long-term share options. In a downturn, it is the reverse. True to form, the current push is for greater weighting on cash. And given the short-term bonuses - usually in the order of 150 per cent of base pay - are also in cash, that ensures a bonanza next year as well, or at least until the sharemarket recovers.

Of course they have to jump hurdles and meet benchmarks to earn those bonuses. One of the main hurdles for picking up the short-term incentives is, believe it or not, staying in the job.

If it wasn't so serious, it really would be a joke.

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