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
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.