Swiss aim to tackle high pay through shareholder democracy

You scratch my back, I'll ask the shareholder remuneration committee to vote to scratch yours.

Switzerland has followed the EU and implemented laws designed to curb high pay. But whereas the EU implemented a hard cap which only affected bonuses in the banking industry, the Swiss plan is both more wide-ranging and less heavy-handed in how it operates.

The key change is a requirement that companies give shareholders a binding vote on executive pay. Currently, pay is set by companies' boards, but now that the Swiss people have spoken, in a referendum which achieved a 68 per cent "yes" vote, one of the highest in the country's history, that is going to change.

The move will fight the so-called principal-agent problem, which is common throughout business and politics. In theory, shareholders entrust the board to make the right decisions on executive pay; if higher pay will lead to more value for the shareholders, perhaps by encouraging the best candidates, then the board should support it, but in most situations, the board should endeavour to keep costs down. Unfortunately, while the board members are entrusted by the shareholders to act in their interests, board members also have their own interests — which may conflict.

In this situation, the classic conflict is that a board member for one company may well be an executive for another, and vice versa. They end up in the situation where they are making decisions about the pay of people who make decisions about their pay, and it's not hard to see how that could result in pay going through the roof.

But handing control over to shareholders doesn't remove all principal agent problems. It all depends how institutional shareholders decide to act — and there's reason to believe they may not be much better. If you invest in a pension fund, you technically own several companies. But the right to vote on how those companies are run — and now, in Switzerland, on how much those companies' executives are paid — is held by the pension fund.

Such funds tend to be uncomfortable about exercising too much shareholder democracy. Partly, this is because they fall prey to the same problem that boards do: the executives who decide how to vote have their pay set by other executives voting on remuneration committees, and the whole backscratching saga continues only slightly abated.

But it is also a matter of privilege and viewpoints. Even if there is no chance of reciprocity, a highly paid financial executive is likely to have very different views on the appropriate level of pay for other highly paid financial executives compared to you or I. For shareholder democracy to really deal with high pay in the boardroom, it would need either a massive resurgence in private investors (not the best idea, since that would likely also result in a huge upswing in private investors losing all their money in the stock market) or institutional investors devolving much more say to their members.

The other requirements set by the Swiss referendum are likely to have more direct effects. In requiring annual re-elections for directors, they remove much of the inertia that can keep people in these extremely well-remunerated, largely ceremonial positions for years beyond their time. And in explicitly banning "golden hellos" and "goodbyes", the practice of awarding a large lump sum upon joining or leaving a company, they create a much more stable and manageable system of pay for the shareholders to oversee.

But fundamentally, tackling high pay — and by extension, inequality — requires tackling the fact that the rich choose how much to pay the rich. The best proposal to do that is something similar to the suggestion that employees ought to have a place on the company's remuneration committee. After all, they have just as much interest in the company being run well, because their jobs depend on it. But they also bring a viewpoint which is sorely lacking in these discussions, whether they are being held in Switzerland or Britain.

The city of Montreux, Switzerland. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Germany's political stability could be threatened by automation

The country's resistance to populism may be tested by changes to its manufacturing industry.

Germans head to the polls this Sunday 24 September. With Merkel set to win a fourth term as Chancellor, it has been dubbed a "sleepy" election – particularly compared to the Dutch and French campaigns a few months ago. Populism, while present, has not taken off to the same extent as in Germany’s neighbouring countries.

In a new Legatum Institute report co-authored with Matthew Elliott, we explore in detail why this is the case, evaluating the historical and economic circumstances as well as social, cultural and political attitudes. In short, support for both the populist Left Party (Die Linke/DL) and for the populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has so far been concentrated in former East Germany. At the national level, it has therefore been hard for either party to win more than around 10 per cent of the vote.

However, a longer term trend that might disrupt German politics in future election cycles is automation. With manufacturing making up a large proportion of the German economy, a significant amount of jobs are set to shift between occupational groups. According to the OECD, the portion of jobs at high risk of automation in Germany – 12 per cent – is one of the highest among countries measured.

While the elimination of some jobs and occupations does not necessarily mean net job losses – on the contrary, BCG estimates a net increase of 350,000 jobs by 2025 – it does mean upheaval, both in the job market and in the political sphere.

On the job market front, Germany has a shrinking pool of skilled labour. The Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) consider this poses the biggest risk to their businesses. The government is acutely aware of the issue – its August 2017 progress report projects 700,000 fewer skilled workers in 2030 than in 2014. Moreover, with an ageing population, the demographics are currently not in Germany’s favour.

Resolving this issue will require big and difficult political changes. On the one hand, it means that more immigration, particularly of young skilled workers, will likely be necessary. Given the backlash to Merkel’s "welcome" policy at the height of the refugee crisis, an anti-immigration sentiment was stirred which was dormant before.

On the other hand, while new jobs will be available, this does not necessarily mean that from one day to another that those working, for example, in manufacturing, will be keen to move into the service industry or another occupation altogether. Nor does it mean they will want to, or even perhaps be capable of, reskilling to carry out new digital roles.

In the UK and the US, we recently witnessed how these labour market changes were one of the big factors associated with support for the protectionist and anti-immigration rhetoric of the Leave campaign for Brexit and Donald Trump for president.

In Germany, the regions most exposed to the effects of automation are in the industrial south and west – parts of the country so far spared from the worst of populism. The potential for populist support to expand at the national level should therefore worry observers. To its credit, the current government has already been thinking about it, as evidenced in the Work 4.0 White Paper.

However, policy choices in the next few years will be crucial for mitigating the future labour market and political shockwaves of automation. If politicians choose to merkeln (do nothing) on the issue, the populist backlash might hit Germany, too.

Claudia Chwalisz is a consultant at Populus and a fellow at the Crick Centre, University of Sheffield. She is the author of The People’s Verdict: Adding Informed Citizen Voices to Public Decision-making (2017) and The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change (2015). Her guide to the German election authored with Matthew Elliott can be downloaded here