The Association of British Insurers has issued an "amber top" warning over the forthcoming vote on Barclays' pay scales.
The warning by the group, which represents a number of big institutional investors who hold between them 17 per cent of the British stock market, means that shareholders are advised not to simply vote with the board, but to think carefully about whether or not the company's desired policy actually represents best practices.
Although the warning is one step below the strongest "red top" alert, Robert Peston reports that a "significant number of investors" are expected to vote against the bank's remuneration report, which is released in two weeks time, as well as to turn down the re-election of the current head of the remuneration committee.
The major concern is over the size of the bonuses for the company's chief executive, Bob Diamond, and its finance director, Chris Lucas. In addition to their respective basic salaries of £1.35m and £0.8m, both were granted bonuses close to the contracted maximum of 2.5 times their salary. This came despite the bank having a relatively poor year, with profitability and share price performing weakly.
Diamond was also granted a £5.7m "tax equalisation" package to compensate him for the move from the US.
The Financial Times report an unnamed "top institutional investor" claiming that:
There is a valid question as to whether there is an appropriate link between pay and performance for both Bob Diamond and Chris Lucas.
The issue is not just about pay at the very top, though. There is equal concern over the across-the-board salaries in Barclays' investment banking division, which the bank is trying to build up into a world-class establishment. Peston has a great quote from an investor (warning: football metaphor):
Barclays wants to be the Barcelona of investment banking, top of a world premier league. The problem is that there have been no rewards for shareholders from those ambitions. So many investors would prefer it if Barclays could content itself being a Manchester United or Arsenal.
Collusion, either conscious or unconscious, is often blamed for the extremely high salaries at the top of the finance sector, with many who vote on remuneration also being the subject of the same votes from the same groups of people. If that is the case, then this breaking of ranks by the ABI may provide a demonstration of what happens when that collusion breaks down. Barclays also holds investments, many of which are in ABI members; will they retaliate in kind?
Probably not. But Barclays are certainly feeling the fire under their feet, and their reaction will be interesting to watch.