The business - Patrick Hosking deplores peace in our time

We don't want peace between companies and their shareholders. The latter should carry on treating to

Secret peace talks have apparently taken place between the two dominant tribes in the capitalist jungle. According to the Sunday Times, the two sides - company directors on the one hand and institutional investors on the other - met recently at the London headquarters of Great Universal Stores (GUS) to bury the hatchet over dinner.

Goodness, the dicks were big and swinging. Any passing anarchist could have put strychnine in the soup and wiped billions off the Footsie at a stroke. Among the big hitters in the corporate corner were Sir John Bond of HSBC, Sir Martin Sorrell of the ad giant WPP and Martin Broughton, chairman-elect of British Airways. The fund managers were represented by, among others, Tony Watson of Hermes, Tim Breedon of Legal & General and Andrew Tusa of Deutsche Asset Management.

Under the chairmanship of Sir Victor Blank, of Trinity Mirror and GUS, the idea was to thrash out how they could improve relations after a series of high-profile bust-ups, including the ousting of Michael Green from Carlton Communications and the blackballing of Sir Ian Prosser as chairman-elect at Sainsbury's.

But, reading the Sunday Times report, the dinner sounded more like a whinge-fest for company directors. There were the usual complaints about shareholders being obsessed with codes of conduct and box-ticking, of failing to communicate their concerns to companies and of using the media to slag off companies anonymously.

It all sounds like a softening-up exercise ahead of the annual general meeting season. Most of the big blue chip companies face AGMs over the next couple of months, and many of them promise to be lively affairs, with institutions voting against incumbent managements in large numbers. "We've tasted blood," one fund manager put it to me the other day. It is true that fund managers are often timorous beasties, preferring an off-the-record chat with a City editor to a confrontation with a recalcitrant company chairman. But that is inevitable because of the conflict of interest at the heart of the investment industry: fund managers are desperate for pension fund mandates, and these are usually in the gift of company directors. Who in those circumstances is going to risk upsetting a potential customer?

The reason shareholders are getting bolshie these days is because a significant minority of top managers have run companies with only one aim - bolstering their own pay packets, pensions, perks, patronage, job security and reputations, regardless of the cost to employees, customers and shareholders. Plenty of people have tut-tutted about the increasingly adversarial nature of the relationship between companies and institutions. But it's been on the whole a force for good. Michael Green's head on a platter was brutally achieved, perhaps, but it will prove a greater force for company reform than any number of peace dinners. (And no doubt Green's pain will be lessened by the £15m pay-off that has just been revealed.)

Sir Ian Prosser was cruelly humiliated, but as a message pour encourager les autres, it could hardly have been bettered. Boardroom pay is still running out of control. The last thing we need now is any talk of peace. Relations between directors and shareholders remain much too cosy.

Lord Butler's investigation into intelligence failings is turning into farce now that the Tories have joined the Lib Dems in boycotting the entire affair. But the former cabinet secretary has had cheering news from a different corner of his retirement portfolio. He sits on the board of HSBC as a non-executive director and the bank has just announced huge pay rises all round.

The job involves attending a handful of board meetings a year and keeping abreast via board papers. As I've pointed out before in this column, HSBC's non-execs have been known to be shameless truants. Yet the non-execs will get a 57 per cent rise, to £55,000 in base pay. They will also get £15,000 for each board subcommittee they sit on, with extra fees on top for chairing them. One subcommittee met just once last year, though the bank insists the workload will increase.

By my calculations, Lord Butler - who chairs one subcommittee on social responsibility and sits on another on appointments - stands to double his fees this year from £45,000 to £90,000.

Not bad, compared with the £38,000 he gets for being a non-exec at ICI. But that's the difference between financial services and manufacturing.

Non-execs at Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB are also getting huge pay rises. These are the people who set executive pay and, in theory, can curb excess. But when their own rewards are rocketing, it all becomes much more uncomfortable.

Patrick Hosking is deputy City editor of the London Evening Standard

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