Friday, April 15, 2011

The morality of pay

The Church of England has taken a line on executive pay. You may ask what has that body got to do with the world of business. Well , there is the small matter that the Church manages a £ 5.3 bn portfolio and is a shareholder in many companies. And, of course, it is a voice of morality, however much you may agree or disagree with it.

The Church of England has said that it will not vote in favour of executive pay proposals that have bonuses more than 4 times the salary. While its influence as a shareholder might be somewhat limited, its voice has the benefit of a moral argument. Just a little while ago shareholders in HSBC voted to limit bonuses to a maximum of 10 times annual pay.
Readers may pause here to consider the obvious question. Who on earth earns bonuses many times his salary ? This blogger has seen a lot in business. Outside of the financial services industry,  there is virtually no place where an employee can earn 10 times his salary as a bonus. So what's so special about the financial services industry ??

What is special, is that the pay structure for bankers has remained rooted in the past. Years ago, most banking businesses, especially investment banks , were partnerships. Salary at the top tended to be very low, and bonuses were really a form of profit sharing amongst the partners, who were the owners. That's why, until not so long ago, being made a partner in Goldman Sachs was such a big thing. Now, most of these entities are corporates. Senior managers are employees, not owners and therefore have no right to profit sharing. But the old pay structure remained and its entirely the fault of the shareholders that they let it continue.

Its a completely specious argument that such stratospheric pay is a reward for talent and performance and if they don't pay such amounts, talent will go elsewhere. The market for top talent is highly imperfect and is not ruled by price alone. And beyond a certain point Maslow's theory kicks in - there isn't that much of a difference between $25m and $ 30m, although mathematically one is 20% higher than the other. And come to think of it, a little less talent going to finance would be a good thing - some plodders would bring sanity into that insane world of risk taking.

This blogger is of the view that the Church of England is absolutely right in taking the stance it has done. And other shareholders would be wise to follow suit.