None of the big Australian banks have escaped censure from the Royal Commission inquiry into financial misconduct, and now it appears that this discontent has spread to shareholders, with many recommending that the superannuation funds should start rejecting the banks’ remuneration reports.
The super funds receiving a request to refuse these bonuses signals an investor revolt of sorts, as many are unhappy with negligent performances that knocked their returns.
Shareholders cited ANZ, National Australia Bank (NAB) and Westpac as some of the major lenders that need to sort out their levels of executive pay, saying that they are not in line with how poorly the banks have been performing as an investment asset. The fallout from the inquiry has so far meant that shares have tumbled, and both public and investor confidence has been seriously dented.
This has led to the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) calling upon the super funds that it advises to reject the current remuneration suggestions on the table when they call their annual general meetings in the next month.
Not every bank is considered to be under the same level of threat. Some are in a worse state than others for not having appropriately reformed their bonus schemes. Institutional Shareholder Service (ISS), a proxy adviser to fund managers, has revealed to the shareholders whom it represents that it believes that Westpac’s deal should not go through, but it has not spoken on the others in the firing line.
The same goes for Australian Super, a $140bn fund that is the largest of its kind in Australia. It is reportedly leaning toward rejecting the reports of both Westpac and NAB but does not have concerns about ANZ, which has taken a quick and proactive response to fix its problems.
After resuming in the last month, the inquiry began to grill the bank executives and board members who theoretically approved any bonus schemes, and worries that bonuses tied to targets that could encourage poor choices are a huge sticking point.
ACSI railed against the fact that all the bank leaders under the spotlight have still received bonuses this year, despite how they have all faced questioning in public. ASCI CEO Louise Davidson said that the council is hoping for a “tougher line” to apply to executive pay levels, but this has clearly not yet happened.
She posed the question: “What do you have to do not to get a bonus?” and added that the “mounting financial and reputational damage” should have been seen as an obvious reason to stop handing out bonuses, especially when so many people are still paying attention to the fallout.
It only takes a quarter of all shareholders to vote against a remuneration report for a strike against the company to occur. If this happens again the following year, then a spill of the company’s board becomes more likely.
Although Westpac did confirm that it has trimmed the top bonus levels, ISS said that it did not go far enough given the scale of the issue. It deemed the reduction “insufficient given the significant nature of issues” that showed up during the inquiry.