Shareholders can complain as loud as they want — and in the last few months, they have. Angry shareholders on The Takeaway this spring have posited that they are just beginning to find a collective voice. And this phenomenon isn't just in the United States. In Britain, shareholders are rising up with fighting words in what some are calling the "shareholder spring."
Though they might have made their voices heard, much of the time these shareholders' votes on issues like executive pay don't actually matter. But now the non-binding nature of these votes might be changing, at least in the United Kingdom.
Vince Cable, the British business secretary, says that British shareholders would be able to enforce what their American counterparts cannot. "What I'm doing is bringing legislation into Parliament to ensure that in the future, pay policy has to be approved by a majority of shareholders." The legislation, which would take effect in 2014, would affect any public company that is listed on the main British stock exchange, their origin — American, German, Japanese, etc. — notwithstanding.
"If a shareholder is dissatisfied with the way the executives have been behaving, they will in future be required to make a statement to a market, and that will lead to a binding vote within the following year," Cable says. The penalties for companies that do not observe non-binding votes are "quite significant."
Nils Pratley of the Guardian criticized Cable for having "watered down" the proposed regulation by requiring a vote on pay every three years instead of every year. "Call the package a step forward," Pratley writes, "just not the three steps forward that it could have been."
"We may see some ducking and weaving," the business secretary says, "and I'd expect to see that. But it's a much tougher regime than has been supplied in the past."
Cable is optimistic about the legislation, and though he acknowledges the likelihood of companies finding ways to delay or avoid harmful rulings, he says it's an important step forward. Having consulted with the Confederation of British Industries, the pension funds, and other businesses, he does not see a risk of a capital flight due to the new regulations. "We don't think it fundamentally affects the competitiveness of British business, but we've had bankers who've paid themselves far too much. They weaken their own banks, become highly unstable, and it's been at the expense of the government and the taxpayer."