The Business - Patrick Hosking on a strange pension payment
If a secretary took 61p from the petty cash without permission, she'd be in trouble. But when it's t
When the editor invited me to write this column, he said: "We want to know what all those wicked capitalists are up to."
So let's begin with Percy Barnevik, who was voted Europe's most admired businessman for four straight years in the mid-1990s. I don't suppose Barnevik is really very wicked, but he has certainly been unwise. In 1997, he received £61m, in the form of a lump-sum pension, from the company he chaired, the European engineering group ABB. Unfortunately, the payment was never approved by the other directors. The arrangement - which came to light two months ago - had added piquancy as ABB had by then started to go horribly wrong, announcing its first ever loss and scrapping the dividend.
If a secretary had taken 61p from the petty cash box without permission, she would have been in deep trouble. But the amount involved was £61m (though Barnevik reluctantly returned £37m), and as we know, the rules are different when the sums have enough noughts on the end. So different, in fact, that last week the shareholders of AstraZeneca, the British drugs group, re-elected Barnevik as their chairman with barely a murmur of dissent.
I was there at the annual meeting to see him apologise about the ABB affair. He need not have bothered. Only one shareholder questioned his suitability for the job and he did it in Swedish - which, thanks to the third-rate simultaneous translation, was barely comprehensible.
I buttonholed Barnevik after the meeting, but he met my question about his pension with a Gallic shrug (yes, Swedes can do very good Gallic shrugs) and walked off.
Sir Peter Bonfield, who, as senior non-executive director, is obliged to handle this can of worms, at least stopped to defend his chairman. The gist of it was that the board (minus Barnevik) did debate the affair and unanimously agreed that he'd been such an impeccable chairman over the past three years that he must stay on.
This spectacularly misses the point, which is whether Barnevik is fit and proper to be heading one of Britain's biggest and most important companies. The AstraZeneca directors have abjectly failed to investigate the scandal, not even bothering to ask ABB what actually happened. It may well be that there is an innocent-ish explanation, but it would be
nice to know what it is.
Sir Peter, whom readers probably know better as the sacked chief executive of BT, tells me he is satisfied after receiving a full account of events from, er, Mr Barnevik. Why is it that while Americans take the Merrill Lynch scandal seriously, we Brits play it down? For those not following this gripping Wall Street morality tale, Merrill has been exposed because it recommended its clients buy shares in companies that it privately regarded as rubbish. The New York attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, has trawled through 30,000 staff e-mails from the dotcom era and found apparently blatant double standards. Shares pushed to clients as good buys were internally dubbed as "piece of shit", "crap" and "junk".
By puffing flaky dotcom after flaky dotcom, the Merrill analysts not only generated sales for the share-broking side of the business, but also helped bring in fees for their deal-making colleagues on the other side of the Chinese wall. Merrill has now apologised.
The Financial Times, initially at least, bent over backwards to see things the Merrill way. Spitzer was disparaged as little more than a politician on the make. It was suggested that his investigation was a waste of tax dollars. And the FT tone has sometimes been one of barely concealed amazement that anyone could be so naive as to take analysts' recommendations at face value.
Yet Merrill isn't a used car lot, and its highly regulated analysts were careful to portray themselves as judicious and neutral experts, not salesmen. One of the reasons the moms and pops trusted stock-market analysts on both sides of the Atlantic was that their opinions were given credibility by appearing day in, day out, in papers such as the FT.
There are spin-doctors, damned spin-doctors, and then there is Richard Tyson-Davies, the director of public affairs at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Whenever anyone raises the absurdity of the three or more working days that it still takes to clear a cheque or direct debit, Tyson-Davies is wheeled out. He was at it last weekend, claiming (in an unchallenged statement in the Sunday Telegraph) that the cost to customers in lost interest was "very little - about £20m a year". If that isn't the cheekiest claim to come out of Lombard Street this year, then I'm Robin Leigh-Pemberton. By my calculations, Tyson-Davies is out by a factor of 200.
Patrick Hosking, formerly City editor of the Daily Express, writes for the London Evening Standard