The bucks stop here
The directors of Barclays Bank are probably still recovering from what must rate as one of the bank's most troubling annual meetings. One-third of the shareholders voted against the board's remuneration report and witnessed the chairman, Marcus Agius, pledging to cut executive pay and distribute more cash to shareholders.
The events at Barclays are part of what is becoming known as the 'shareholder spring', which has also seen a shareholder revolt over excessive executive pay at Citigroup and is part of a trend of investors demanding to know why they are not getting better value from their investments.
On April 27, almost one-third of Credit Suisse shareholders voted against the bank's pay plan, amid angry comments about 'greed' from individual investors.
In many ways, what we are seeing today is a delayed reaction to the financial crash of 2008, when firms' share prices plunged while executives suffered no pay-cut pain.
Indeed, high levels of executive pay have become the hallmark of how many big corporations work. This is reflected in a Harvard University study that found, in the period 2001-03, the income of the five most senior executives equalled 10 per cent of corporate earnings.
If ordinary employees are left with the impression that their pay and job security declines as executive pay improves, there is a reason: the US-based Institute for Policy Studies found that chief executives who cut the most jobs in the wake of 2008 received an average 42 per cent pay hike in 2009.
And although there was an overall dip in top executive pay after the 2008 meltdown, it did not take long for CEOs to get back on course.
According to a widely quoted study by the AFL-CIO, an umbrella federation of American unions, the average pay of chief executives in Standard & Poor's 500 companies rose by 13.9 per cent last year.
This left the average pay of CEOs last year 380 times higher than that of most workers. To put this in perspective, back in 1980, the average CEO earned about 42 times more than the rest of the workers.
How, then, did executive pay get so out of kilter? Defenders of massive remuneration say it is justified by the fact that executives are running bigger companies. Rising executive pay reflects the corporations' increasing value. Such arguments are hard to sustain in the light of the events of 2008, as one major bank collapsed and the US government was forced to bail out the country's nine largest banks alongside the big American automakers.
It is very hard to evaluate what constitutes better management, but the reality is that decisions on remuneration in large listed companies are made by so-called independent committees, which show a distinct tendency towards generous payment. They base that view on surveys that justify it as having to keep up with one another.
What sticks in many shareholders' craws is that executive pay has massively outstripped shareholder returns.
And all this raises the question of the impact that impressive executive pay levels has on employee morale. Management guru Peter Drucker famously said that the ratio between the pay of executives and workers should be no higher that 20 to 1, a view, incidentally, shared by John Pierpont Morgan, who founded J.P. Morgan, an investment bank that certainly no longer follows this stricture. As the gap widens, cynicism sets in, and this inevitably has an impact on employee performance.
Hong Kong has largely escaped the executive pay debate and not seen the lavish distribution of share options witnessed in other places. This is largely because its biggest companies are still run by their founders and their offspring. For reasons of tax efficiency they typically get most of their money from dividend payments, which are not taxed in Hong Kong.
This closely aligns their interests with those of their shareholders, and, as they tend to be loath to cede power to non-family members, they have no cause to join the executive pay rat race.