European nations and China seek to curb pay for executives and bankers

European countries looking to curb the pay of executives and bankers may have an ally in China which is seeking to ease social inequality

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 March, 2013, 5:30am

Sickened by years of financial crises and reports of huge salaries and bonuses for the executives and bankers they say plunged the global economy into chaos, governments and voters around the world are moving to put the fat cats on a pay diet.

The European Union is edging closer to strict limits on bank bonuses, while even Switzerland, traditionally Europe's staunchest bastion of free market capitalism, will rein in executive pay after voters backed pay curbs in a referendum on Sunday. Other European countries are also acting to curb pay.

But while European governments - particularly Britain's - warn of an exodus of talent and capital to Asia, those looking to restrict executive pay may have a new ally rising in the East: China.

Outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao has left his successors a gift on the eve of his retirement - directives designed to ease social inequality in part through raising wages for the poor but also by limiting incomes of senior managers at state-owned monopolies. Detailed plans are being studied at ministries.

It may sound odd to compare the initiatives in China, Switzerland and the EU given their sharply different economic structures, as well as the different root causes of problems. And economists say the reasons for the initiatives have subtle but significant differences.

"The Swiss vote was triggered by widespread anger at banks rather than a general desire to tackle income inequality," unlike the case in China, said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics.

The Swiss vote was triggered by widespread anger at banks rather than a general desire to tackle income inequality
Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics

The possible victims also differ: in Switzerland, it's the top executives in the private sector - at banks and multinational businesses like UBS and Nestle - that will suffer. In China, the campaign, were it to be successfully introduced one day, would focus on officials from state and government sectors.

By Swiss standards the executives Beijing has in its sights would be no more than middle-income earners.

Daniel Vasella, head of pharmaceuticals giant Novartis, made 15 million Swiss francs (HK$123 million) in 2011, while Severin Schwan, boss of pharmaceutical powerhouse Roche, earned 12.5 million Swiss francs.

It's salaries like those that prompted Dr Marc Laperrouza, a lecturer at the University of Lausanne, to say the Swiss vote was "not about anti-rich sentiment but rather about anti-uber-rich".

In contrast, top leaders at Chinese state-owned banks, such as Jiang Jianqing , chairman of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world's largest bank, earned a package of less than 2 million yuan (HK$2.5 million) in 2011.

That said, Jiang and his industry peers' incomes still sound astronomical to those living at the bottom of mainland society, where a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan is not unusual.

Despite the differences, however, there is at least one similarity between the two countries, analysts say - a distorted market that benefits the privileged.

Bankers are seen as benefitting from a skewed system that allows them to earn vast amounts without facing the consequences of bad decisions, says Williams.

That's the kind of anger that stirred 67.9 per cent of Swiss voters to support a move to limit managers' pay, which was first proposed by businessman Thomas Minder in 2006.

"The people have decided to send a strong signal to boards, the Federal Council [Swiss government] and the parliament," Minder said after the vote.

The draft law set down by the Minder initiative covers only Swiss companies listed on Swiss or foreign stock exchanges.

It will limit the mandate of board members to one year, and will ban certain kinds of compensation, including so-called golden handshakes or golden parachutes (large payments or other financial compensation) given to executives when they leave a company.

The Swiss government and the upper house of parliament opposed the plan, cautioning that some large companies might decide to move their bases out of the country.

Public anger at executive pay intensified during the global financial crisis in 2008, when UBS, the largest Swiss bank, had to seek a government bailout worth US$59.2 billion after suffering huge losses.

"There is a parallel there with China, where a general perception exists that anyone who has become wealthy has done so by taking advantage of market distortions," Williams said.

Despite existing government limits on salaries, senior state-owned-enterprise executives enjoy big bonuses and benefits, as well as other forms of hidden income, thanks to a system that allows them to obtain resources more easily than others and which leaves loopholes to exploit.

A China National Coal official said the high remuneration of executives had fostered bribery and corruption as lower-level officials struggled to climb the corporate ladder.

"The widening wealth gap was the root cause for nasty behaviour at some of the state-owned enterprises," he said. "Ordinary workers and lower-level managers would rather spend 100,000 yuan to bribe their bosses to seek a promotion. A hefty pay rise in line with promotion would be more than enough to cover the cost of bribery.

At a typical state-owned enterprise, a section manager normally earns an annual salary of between 100,000 yuan to 200,000 yuan while a higher-level official could pocket as much as 1 million yuan.

Professor Yu Yongding, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, urged Beijing to push ahead with income distribution reform. He said on the sidelines of the National People's Congress that top officials' pay packages "have become too high to be acceptable by ordinary people".

China's official Gini-coefficient figure - a gauge of wealth inequality - stood at 0.474 last year, above the international danger line of 0.4 and a big jump from 0.3 about 25 years ago, pointing to a potential rise in social unrest.

"In other countries, it has taken a crisis to dislodge the vested interests from their positions of power," Williams said.

But China's campaign may be more complicated "given the huge size of grey consumption", said Shen Jianguang, a chief economist at Mizuho Securities, who previously worked for the European Central Bank.

China still lacks official data about grey income - off-the-book gains that have become a source of official corruption - due to the difficulty in collecting data.

Wang Xiaolu, a well-known academic at the China Reform Foundation, and Professor Wing Thye Woo of the University of California, issued a report in 2010 that estimated the nation's grey income may have reached 5.4 trillion yuan in 2008.

Alastair Newton, a senior analyst at Nomura, expects that public anger toward inequality will push Beijing to overhaul the income distribution system. "The outcome of the [Swiss] referendum is via a popular vote. It would be true to say that China's leaders are responding to popular pressure [albeit without the benefit of a plebiscite] to which they are certainly not immune."

The clampdowns in Switzerland and the EU will have implications as far away as Hong Kong, with the banks' operations in the city covered by the laws.

Kelvin Wong Tin-yau, chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of Directors, praised the initiative but said there was no need for Hong Kong to follow suit.

"This is a good move as it prevents excessive pay to bankers and prevents them from eyeing short-term profits for their companies to boost their bonus payment," Wong said.

"I do not think Hong Kong companies need to follow Switzerland or Europe as the pay level in Hong Kong is reasonable and not excessive. Many chief executives receive about HK$2 million to HK$10 million, which is far below some Western bankers who have a pay package as high as HK$100 million or so."

But Wong does not believe mainland executives are overpaid - instead, some benefit from corruption. "I would rather think mainland China should increase the salary of executives as a way to discourage them from taking bribes or other illegal payments."

Additional reporting by Enoch Yiu, Agence France-Presse


How Europe is tackling executive pay

Austria: Golden parachutes are banned in banks in which the state owns a stake. In private banks, golden parachutes of over €500,000 (HK$5.05 million) are fully taxed. Below that figure, the beneficiaries benefit from a tax cut of 6 per cent.

Britain: The government wants to limit excessive salaries for executives in companies which are underperforming, without intervening directly. It announced last year its intention to give more power to shareholders to contest top executives' pay and wants, under legislation now under examination in Parliament, to force companies to exercise more transparency when it comes to executive pay.

France: Golden parachutes are not forbidden but are subject to stiff social charges and restrictions. The government recently raised taxes on such measures. Compensation is closely regulated and limited in general to a maximum of two years of the executive's highest pay. Pay received by the heads of state-owned companies was capped in mid-2012.

Germany: A 2009 law controls the pay of those on a board of directors. The government said the result of a Swiss referendum backing pay curbs was interesting.

Italy: The idea of attacking golden parachutes or reducing remuneration in the private sector has not gained much traction until now. But for the first time, the former government of Mario Monti has in its austerity packages cut into the "golden salaries" of public sector executives. It has thus capped at €294,000 per person the salaries of 18 company chiefs who were costing the state more than €5 million. Among them were the chief of police and of the tax office, and the chairman of aerospace and defence giant Finmeccanica.

The Netherlands: The Dutch government is working on a draft law which would limit golden parachutes to a maximum of €75,000. The Hague hopes that the law will take effect on July 1 next year, according to a spokesman for the social and employment ministry.

Spain: Since January 1, the Spanish government has penalised compensation paid to outgoing leaders of big companies by abolishing a tax break available until then on part of the pay.

Sweden: All financial pay-offs are negotiated individually when a contract is signed. In 2011, Stockholm toughened rules on bonuses, with employees considered to be "risk takers", seeing the payment of bonuses exceeding 100,000 kronor (HK$121,600) spread out, with 60 per cent withheld until three years have elapsed. Heads of enterprises capitalised at more than 500 billion kronor must also receive part of their bonus in the form of shares or other instruments linked to the performance of their company.

Agence France-Presse