Bankers' pay under scrutiny in South Africa

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Angry investors and furious shareholders criticising excessive bankers' bonuses, tut-tutting ministers threatening curbs on remuneration. Until recently this was a British scenario, observed with some detachment by South Africa's financial services sector, comfortable with its track record of moderation and its reputation for responsibility.

Now the 'contagion' seems to have spread and the country's banking industry finds itself under increased scrutiny.

South Africa's Finance minister Pravin Gordhan last week launched a blistering attack on the "unacceptable" rise in Ceos' salaries, saying the practice is "a recipe for future disaster" and new parameters have to be established. "We are creating a dangerous culture in South Africa," Mr Gordhan said, quoting recent research by forensic analysis company Computus which concludes that "executive salaries are out of control".

The publication of banks' annual reports in the last couple of weeks has put the spotlight on remuneration in the sector. Salaries and bonuses (generous but well below the UK average) have generally been justified as following two criteria: performance and executive retention. In the small fishbowl of SA banking, preventing an executive from joining a rival bank is as important as dangling a carrot to talented prospective employees.

These two criteria do not apply to the case of Derek Cooper, who after a decade as chairman of Standard Bank left with a R7.5m "thank you" on top of his R4.4m salary. The bank said the pay-out was a "wholly appropriate" recognition of Cooper's "extraordinary contribution" as chairman, but the decision is causing controversy, not least because his was a non-executive as well as a part-time role.

Investors are now stepping into the fray. The Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which holds 12.2% of Standard Bank, is planning to vote against Mr Cooper's golden handshake at the bank's AGM next week (May 27). It would be an unprecedented move and an example that could be followed by other shareholders.

Deon Botha, the PIC's corporate governance specialist, says the payment is "just not on" partly because "Cooper was already one of the better paid chairmen around" and partly because "this will create a precedent for other companies". King III, South Africa's revised corporate governance code, states that bonuses should not be awarded to non-executive directors but reserved for executives.

It is not only banks that are coming under fire. Insurance company Liberty Holdings has been in the spotlight for its decision to award R5.1m in bonuses to Ceo Bruce Hemphill and other two top executives plus R16m in share incentives despite a 91% fall in earnings. Angus Band, chairman of the remuneration committee, said the company could not afford to have "a mass outflow of highly talented people" and had to pay "to retain staff in a highly skills-constrained market" . Liberty Holdings, which is 53% owned by Standard Bank, was South Africa's worst-performing life insurance company in 2009.

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