Cable promises to tackle pay, short-termism and the banks

The Business Secretary launches a new probe into excessive pay, dodgy takeovers, and corporate governance failures.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 14 Jul 2015
vince Cable was on fighting form at the CBI conference yesterday: the Business Secretary launched a new 'Review of Corporate Governance and Short-termism' that will encourage UK plc to take a closer look at its own shortcomings - notably in terms of stuff like excessive pay, short-term investing, and shareholder engagement. You have to hand it to Cable: he may not be a barrel of laughs thse days, but he's not afraid to deliver a few home truths. And while it's easy to be sceptical about yet another consultation, these are all issues worth addressing.

Cable suggested the UK economy had suffered 'the economic equivalent of a heart attack... It is now being nursed out of intensive care and off steroids, but serious damage has been done.' The choices the Government makes now, he said, will 'determine not only our recovery but the shape of our economy for years to come' - arguing that we need to puruse the kind of 'vigorous reform and focus on export-led growth' seen in Sweden and Finland in the 1990s, to avoid the 'persistent stagnation' seen in Japan. Like David Cameron this morning, he suggested this was about Government removing barriers to growth, backing our best sectors, and spending its money wisely (on stuff like the innovation centres announced on Monday morning).

Nothing too controversial there. But he also wasn't shy about putting the boot in, despite his corporate audience. For instance, he reiterated the Coalition's 'collective determination to ensure that banks act in the interests of the wider economy' (not to mention avoiding 'another self-indulgent bonus round'); he also said he wanted to see more competition in the sector, so businesses in need of finance have 'a much broader choice' (both from banks and elsewhere).

Investing for the long-term was a key theme of his speech; the banks had failed to do that, he said, and so too had many corporate shareholders - the 'mind-set of many fund managers remain focused on the short term', rather than engaging with management to determine long-term strategy. The case of Cadbury, where the long-term shareholders cashed out leaving the company's fate largely in the hands of hedge funds, is an obvious example.

So the new consultation will ask for ideas about this. It'll also examine whether the Takeover Panel has gone far enough with its recent recommendations on the takeover rules. And interestingly, it will also revisit that hoary old chestnut of executive pay. Cable points out, not unreasonably, that CEO remuneration has gone up even as the FTSE has gone down, and he quoted CBI boss RIchard Lambert's nice line that 'if CEOs seem to occupy a different galaxy... they risk being treated as aliens.'

As Cable promised at the start, this wasn't the kind of upbeat tub-thumping speech you'd expect a Business Secretary to give at a CBI conference; there were some ironic cheers when he said he was going to finish on a positive note ('Britain has a lot going for it and good prospects for recovery' apparently - a relief after what came before). But it was also, as Lambert said afterwards, a 'thoughtful' speech, with a 'welcome focus on the long term' - even if it probably won't win him many brownie points with the City in the short term...

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