Archive for the ‘Obama’ Tag

A Grilling for Directors

– in which Bob Tricker continues his call for a radical rethink of the way power is exercised over companies by society.

In a previous blog, I argued that the relationship between auditors and directors, in which directors de facto appoint the auditors who then report to them, was too close. I proposed that auditors should be appointed by and report to regulators and, through them, to other interested stakeholders. In this blog I explore the way directors communicate with their shareholders and again develop a radical alternative to accepted practice.

The global financial melt-down and on-going economic explosion continues to expose weaknesses in corporate governance practices and, more importantly, attitudes. Giving wider powers to regulators and introducing more regulations, as is now being proposed, will have little effect if those regulators continue to be closely associated with, and often come from, the industry they are regulating. Long standing assumptions about the way things should be done need to be questioned not reinforced. Expectations and attitudes have to change.

Taking directors remuneration as a dramatic example, in recent years we have seen a massive increase in the ratio of CEO pay to that of their hourly paid workers, in many cases as their firms eroded shareholder value. The old legal concept of fairness, what a reasonable man would expect, has long been forgotten. As Barack Obama has written “what accounts for the change in CEO pay is not any market imperative. It’s cultural. At a time when workers are experiencing little or no income growth, many of America’s CEOs have lost any sense of shame about grabbing whatever their pliant, hand-picked corporate boards will allow.” [The Audacity of Hope, Crown Publishing Group (Random House), New York, 2007]

The director/shareholder relationship

At the heart of corporate governance are the relationships between shareholder-investors and top-management decision-makers. Shareholders’ ability to question directors and directors’ accountability to shareholders are crucial. In the 19th century that was relatively easy for the joint-stock limited-liability company. Companies were then smaller, less complex and licensed by the state to pursue a single aim, build a railway, run an iron foundry, supply a town with gas, for example. Moreover, the shareholders were individuals and could be counted in tens or hundreds. Institutional investors, mutual funds, and pension funds had yet to be invented.

How different today. Complex corporate groups, with hundreds of subsidiaries, associate companies and joint ventures in pyramids, networks and geared chains, with multiple shareholders – institutional investors including hedge funds, mutual funds, pension funds, insurance companies, even sovereign funds – not just individuals. The challenge is how to communicate with them, to listen to them, and be accountable to them.

The classical solution, of course, was to require meetings of shareholders so that the board could explain their stewardship of the corporate funds. That requirement still holds for the public company. But we all know the ongoing farce of meetings tightly organised by the company secretary, dominated by the chairman, with questions so restricted that communication is essentially one way, seldom providing an adequate opportunity for genuine dialogue.

Companies were also required by law to provide their members with regular written reports with information laid out in company law and stock exchange listing rules. Today, electronic mail and corporate internet sites supplement the printed word. But such reporting is still one-way: company to shareholders. The opportunity for investors to seek information about their directors’ activities is limited.

How can shareholders really find out what they want to know? How can they genuinely exercise power over the directors they have appointed to be stewards of their funds? Successive reports, including the British Myners Report, have called for institutional investors to play a bigger part in corporate governance. A few institutional investors, like CalPers in the United States and Hermes in the UK, together with some investor organisations, such as the Association of British Insurers have certainly made their presence felt. But others still prefer the option of ‘doing the Wall Street walk’ or voting with their feet as they say in Britain, avoiding the potential costs of getting locked-in should they get involved in governance issues.

A new approach

But there is another way. Anyone watching the recent grilling of directors of financial institutions by Congressional Committees in the USA and Commons Treasury Select Committees in the UK saw an alternative approach. Why should investors not be able to wield similar power? After all they actually own the companies.

Who would do the grilling? It would have to be representatives of the shareholders, who have not been captured by the company and its directors. Skilled representatives from institutional investors or perhaps a new breed of professionals come to mind.

In Australia, Shann Turnbull has proposed a corporate senate that might be adapted. He believes that “most corporations in the English speaking world are essentially corrupt because their unitary board structures concentrate on conflicts of interest and corporate power.” His alternative is a dual board structure with a corporate senate elected on the basis of one vote per shareholder, not per share. In his model the senate has no pro-active power, just the right to veto where it feels the board has a conflict of interest. Its members could certainly be trained to grill directors on behalf of the other shareholders.

Would directors readily agree to be grilled? Of course not! Self-regulation, exhortation, or listing rules requirements would not suffice. Legislation will be needed. Shareholders, who actually are the company, would need to be given power to carry out the level of grilling and transparency given to US Congressional and UK Treasury Select Committees. Proceedings would need to be public, probably carried live through the internet and available as a record on a web site.

Directors have a fiduciary duty to act in the interests of shareholders, not their own. Somehow this has been forgotten. Professional grilling by shareholders of their directors would move the original concept of directors’ stewardship, fiduciary duty, and accountability towards the reality of 21st century expectations and demands.

Bob Tricker

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Banks in crisis: failures of corporate governance?

Corporate governance has been gaining more predominance around the world over the last decade.  However the last year or so which has brought the financial crisis and the ‘credit crunch’ has seen an unprecedented interest in some of the areas that are central to corporate governance: executive remuneration; boards of directors, independent non-executive directors; internal controls and risk management; the role of shareholders.

However the focus on these areas has brought into sharp relief some of the failings of the present system whether these have been brought about by greed, naivity, or a lack of real appreciation of the risk exposures of banks.

Bankers’ bonuses
Whilst many would agree that bankers have received huge payouts, often for a seeming failing company, bonuses appear likely to be cut, possibly by around 40% or more.  Peter Thal Larsen and Adrian Cox (FT, Page 13, 07/08 Feb 09) in their article ‘Barclays bankers braced for bonus cut’ highlight that even much reduced bonuses are likely to be controversial given that feelings are running high amongst the public and politicians alike.

The generous remuneration packages of executive directors of some of the UK’s largest banks have caught the headlines day after day in recent weeks.  In their article Former executives face bonus grilling’ (FT Page 2, 9th Feb 09), George Parker and Daniel Thomas mention an interesting historical fact ‘in the early 18th century, after the bursting of the South Sea bubble, a parliamentary resolution proposed that bankers be tied up in sacks filled with snakes and thrown into the River Thames’!  No doubt there are those who wish the same might happen today although a grilling before the Commons Treasury Committee may prove to be almost as unpleasant an experience!

Adrian Cox’s article ‘Barclays executives must wait longer for bonuses’ (FT, page 2, 11th Feb 09) highlights that Barclays is trying to design a pay structure that retains staff whilst rewarding long-term performance at a time when banks have been urged to show ‘moral responsibility’ in their remuneration structures.  The pay restructuring will affect not just directors but also senior employees, and other banks including UBS, Credit Suisse, RBS and Lloyds are in a similar position.

Risk Management

‘Former HBOS chiefs accused over risk controls as bankers apologise’ was the striking head of the article by Jane Croft, Peter Thal Larsen and George Parker (FT, page 1, 11th Feb 09).  Under questioning from the Commons Treasury Committee, Lord Stevenson, Andy Hornby, Sir Tom McKillop and Sir Fred Goodwin all apologised for what had happened at RBS.  Part of the questioning brought to light that a former employee had warned the board of potential risks associated with the bank’s rapid expansion.

Risk management is an area that is bound to gain a higher profile given the extent of the impact of the use of toxic assets which many feel were not well understood.

Where were the institutional shareholders?

Lord Myners, the City minister, has urged shareholders to challenge banks ‘Myners calls on shareholders to challenge reward cultures’ by Adrian Cox and Kate Burgess (FT page 3, 10th Feb 09). Lord Myners, they state, said that’ institutional investors should look at the content of remuneration reports and ask questions if the data are complex or opaque’.

My view is that it is an ongoing debate as to what extent institutional shareholders should intervene in the affairs of the companies in which they invest (investee companies).  It is widely recognised that engagement and dialogue are useful and necessary for an institutional investor to monitor the activities of investee companies.  However there is a line to be drawn between what it is feasible – and desirable – for the institutional shareholders to do, and what might be seen as undesirable and restrictive.

Sophia Grene article  ‘Funds say they did all they could to warn banks’ (FT, page 9, 8th Feb 09) highlights the view of the UK’s Investment Management Association that ‘fund managers did all they could to prevent banks hurtling to their doom, but under the current system, shareholders cannot shout loud enough to be heard’  The IMA also indicated a possible way forward for the future ‘investors can only do so much…..maybe we need to take a closer look at how investors and non-executive directors interact.  They’re privy to much more information than the investors’.

Walker Review of the Corporate Governance of the Banking Industry

Sir David Walker has been appointed to lead a review of the corporate governance of the banking industry which will look into remuneration and bonuses, risk management and board composition. The terms of reference can be found at:

http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/press_10_09.htm

Bankers abroad

In the US, President Obama has brought in reforms to limit the remuneration of executives to $500,000 at banks which have had a bail out.  Shares could also be given under incentive plans but would only vest once government support had been repaid, ‘Obama gets tough on pay for executives’, Alan Beattie and Edward Luce (FT page 1, 5th Feb 09).
Chris Mallin