January 26, 2012
Vince Cable’s been in the news with his proposals for curbing executive pay. These amount to small increases in transparency and shareholder power, and have been vilified by both left and right, normally a proxy for good Lib Dem policy-making. George Monbiot wants to see a cap on maximum pay, set at a level amusingly below that of his editor. The IEA thinks the Government should stay out of the business of executive pay entirely, and that shareholder interference should be avoided.
The Right argues that high executive pay is the result of a newly globalised market for executives pushing up prices. This appears to be based on the assumption that a global market will be competing for a fixed pool of executives, and the expansion of that pool will therefore increase wages paid. It would also imply that executive pay should be proportional to exposure to foreign markets. Let’s test this. As a proxy for exposure to foreign markets, I will use both inflows and outflows of foreign direct investment, and stats for the US as they’re the easiest to come by:
That looks like a pretty strong correlation to me. Having a cap on wages would only mean that Britain wouldn’t have access to the international executive market. If there is a limited supply of executive talent globally – and the stats appear to indicate that is the case – it’s worth considering why this should be the case. The strength of the market should incentivise more people to try to enter it. An explanation may be that overseas expansion by multinationals pushes out competition, and this combined with overseas merger & acquisition activity would serve to reduce the pool of individuals with global CEO experience. However, having fewer firms in competition for CEOs should also lower CEO compensation.
It may be that barriers to entry are unnaturally high as a result of corporate directors picking people like themselves, in which case Cable’s reforms should have concentrated less on shareholder representation over executive salaries themselves and more on ensuring that shareholders are represented during the shortlisting process. However, it’s clear that while his reforms are welcome, they don’t get at the root of the problem. High executive pay is a global phenomenon, and has little to do with the UK’s corporate governance.