Is shareholder action winning on high pay?

There are a growing number of cases where shareholders are voting down increases in top salaries

The High Pay Centre’s annual survey of FTSE 100 chief exec pay packages was released today. In amongst its usual exposure of the jaw-dropping salaries of the top earners, it contained a rare piece of good news: senior pay has dropped to below 2014 levels.

The last year has seen a number of FTSE 100 companies U‑turn on senior pay. And that’s at least in part because of pressure from shareholders voting to curb runaway pay packets.

According to figures compiled for the Financial Times by research group Manifest, between 10 and 20 per cent of shareholders refused to support pay proposals at 62 S&P 500 companies and at 18 FTSE 100 companies last year — the highest level of shareholder dissent on executive pay in at least five years. It shows the power which people can have to change what seems like an unmoveable fact of life.

How pay is set

In 2014, new rules gave shareholders a binding vote over executive pay every three years, and an advisory vote every year. While there are plenty of examples of companies paying no attention to non-binding votes against increasing pay, there are at least some examples of successful shareholder action. These demonstrate the potential of shareholders to influence boardroom decisions.

We’ve picked out a few notable examples below – which in total have prevented a full £22.6 million going to top earners.

BP – £5.6 million saved

Last year, almost 60% of shareholders voted against a £14m pay package for BP’s chief executive, Bob Dudley. While this vote is non-binding, the oil company appears to be listening. BP cut Bob Dudley’s 2016 pay package by 40% and introduced changes that will lower executives’ performance incentives.

Imperial brands – £3 million saved

Tobacco giant and FSTE 100 company Imperial Brands has also backed down on hiking senior pay because of shareholder action. Earlier this year Imperial Brands cancelled an increase in the maximum bonus payable to chief executive Alison Cooper, which would have seen her pay packet climb from £5.5m to £8.5m, because of a lack of support from shareholders.

Reckitt Benckiser – £14million saved

While still sitting at third highest paid CEO in the UK, Rakesh Kapoor of household goods company, Reckitt Benckiser, has seen his pay fall significantly in one year. He was up for a pay rise, but nearly one in five of the company’s shareholders voted against last year’s pay policy, leading to the pay-setting committee denying him a bonus and cutting his long-term incentive benefits in 2016.

These examples are unfortunately not the norm. But pressure is rising. This year, ShareAction, an NGO promoting responsible investment, has supported pension savers to urge their schemes to vote down executive pay policies in BP and Shell. Actions like these are a powerful reminder that although it may seem impossible to influence boardroom pay, everyone who pays into a pension is a shareholder and has a voice.

What’s more, on a wider level public outrage over inequality – seen in responses to the Grenfell tragedy, or the latest BBC high pay figures – is snowballing. In light of this, it’s no wonder that FTSE 100 companies are offering their lowest pay packages to CEOs since 2014; we wouldn’t allow them to get away with anything else.

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