Pay matters for normal employees, not CEOs

Good on Barclays and Citigroup, but we need to focus on the pay of all employees, not just those at

Stories about shareholders challenging the size of CEO pay deals have been prominent in this week's business pages. Barclays have hurriedly amended the terms of Bob Diamond's bonus in the hope of avoiding the sort of embarrassment that Citigroup suffered when a majority of their investors rejected Vikram Pandit's remuneration package. 

In recent years, investors have been widely criticised for failing to address excessive executive pay, and while their current spate of activity is welcome there is strong evidence that they alone are incapable of systematically addressing the problem. Also, while investors (and companies, commentators and policy-makers) are now having serious conversations about executive pay, they are neglecting other problems around pay in the private sector – problems which have serious impacts on the company performance as well as on the wider economy and society. 

Articles about the pay of company CEOs are now common in, but there are far fewer stories about the pay of the wider workforce. The disproportionate focus on a tiny minority of employees is not confined to the media. Companies' annual reports are obliged to talk about pay at the top, but there is no such requirement with regard to pay at the bottom or middle. (Vince Cable recently rejected the idea of obliging companies to report on the ratio between CEO pay and that of a typical employee). This being the case, it is hardly surprising that investors engage very seldom with companies about wider workforce pay.

Companies, investors, commentators and policymakers frequently talk about the (probably incorrect) assumption that pay at the top must motivate executives by linking big rewards to company performance. There is far less talk about the correlation between narrow pay dispersion and improved company performance, or the detrimental effect of excessively low pay on the productivity, attendance, retention and mental health of low and middle ranking employees. Ignoring the wider workforce may suppress the performance of the wider company, but too often the pay of anyone outside the higher echelons is seen as a cost rather than an investment.

But investors (and policymakers) should also consider how workforce pay affects the wider economy. The CBI recently claimed that allowing minimum wage to fall behind inflation comes as "a relief" to "many hard-pressed firms", but forgets that many firms are hard-pressed because low-paid workers have little money to spend in the local economy. Excessively low pay also externalises huge costs to the taxpayer, either supplementing wages through benefits (about £6bn a year, according to the IFS) or meeting the social costs associated with in-work poverty.

Some investors have realised that companies have employees beyond the boardroom. Traditionally these have been ethical investors, whose actions may have been motivated more by ethics than investment, but some more mainstream investors (such as Hermes & NAPF) and commentators (such as the share centre) are now beginning to talk about the need to consider top pay in relation to workforce pay.

Beyond a few pioneers, shareholder interest in pay "beyond the boardroom" is pitifully limited. Hopefully investors themselves will take more of an interest in the business case for whole-workforce pay policies, but if their engagement with the issue of excessive executive pay is any thing to go on, that will take a very long time. We need both the media and policymakers to take a lead, by ensuring that the conversations they have with business leaders are not disproportionately about those business leaders.

Our businesses, economy and families need to move away from model that often appears to regard top pay is a matter of motivation and everyone else's pay as a matter of cost. If we do not move away from such a model, the economy will remain unnecessarily sluggish and brutal.

Cutting Bob Diamond's salary may bring the 1 per cent down, but does that help the 99 per cent? Photograph: Getty Images

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.