Roll up, roll up for week five of the hunting season everybody’s compelled to call “the shareholder spring”. The main attractions this time will see the stocks loaded with all the directors of science firm Cookson (vote against the lot, says advisory body Pirc) as well as online gambling group 888.
So where next? More director floggings for sure, but outside the boardroom there’s a clutch of faceless City operators beginning to worry the mob will notice them. Fund managers, many of whom have been paid handsomely to lose us our money, are an obvious target, as are the corporate brokers retained to inform boards.
At Aviva, where boss Andrew Moss was forced out last week, its brokers Cazenove and Morgan Stanley are understood to have told the chief executive how unpopular he was, only to omit to tell anybody else. Moss, being a self-effacing chap, was too shy to mention anything either.
Meanwhile, at Barclays there are signs the bank may even have noticed something was up by itself, having tweaked the visionary team behind Bob Diamond’s £17m pay. “[Pay consultant] Towers Watson was reappointed by the [remuneration] committee until February 2012,” its annual report states, before neatly setting up the punchline. “Johnson Associates was appointed as its adviser from March 2012.”
Playtech looks good bet for a protest vote
All of a sudden, everybody’s obsessed with protest voting. But this week sees an annual meeting that has always looked likely to provoke dissent.
Playtech, an Aim-listed gambling software provider, is gamely attempting to gain promotion to the main market later this year, having dealt itself a hand full of governance woes. But first comes Wednesday’s gathering, bravely scheduled in the easily accessible Isle of Man.
Here’s a company that has just been pressurised into rethinking its penchant for buying businesses from its 40% shareholder, Teddy Sagi (whose near £1bn fortune was achieved after overcoming a youthful conviction for manipulating stock prices). Meanwhile, Playtech’s board is comprised of just four directors (tut-tut) and its supposedly independent chairman, Roger Withers, has just had to reverse out of owning stock options (tut-tut-tut) – which has contributed to proxy voting service Manifest wondering if the firm is “committed to best practice”. Incidentally, Withers, who’s up for re-election, managed just one appearance at each of the audit and nominations committees last year. If he’s ousted, would anybody notice?
A no-brainer at the Treasury committee
Stephen Hester, the boss of Royal Bank of Scotland, dislikes political tension. “I’m a pink Tory or blue Labour,” is his favoured phrase to sidestep an ideological confrontation – a ruse that works neatly if you’re trying to convince a bunch of students that you’re working for the greater good (but slightly less well if you’re attempting to persuade a skint electorate to let you trouser your bonus).
Still, any tensions between banking and politics will be on show this week when the Treasury select committee takes evidence from a group of heavyweight witnesses on the disposal of our stakes in RBS and Lloyds Banking Group.
Among the experts will be Keith Skeoch, chief executive of Standard Life Investments; Richard Buxton, head of UK equities at Schroders; and Robert Talbut, chairman of the investment committee at the Association of British Insurers, and it would be a surprise if any of these gentlemen diverged much from the view delivered to the committee in November.
Back then, the key witness stated that shareholders didn’t want bank stock (not even for sporting reasons of voting down pay awards) and considered the shares to be a “dumb” investment. And that witness’s name? Step forward, Stephen Hester.
Boots turns PR into an artform
Well, at least one Alliance Boots asset hasn’t been relocated to Switzerland. A portrait of Jesse Boot, who created what we all used to call Boots the Chemist, has just been loaned to the National Portrait Gallery, where it went on display last week.
That move is providing a nice piece of PR for the high street chemist as it prepares for this week’s results, which will surely prompt questions about what else the company is handing to the nation.
Alliance Boots was taken private by chairman Stefano Pessina and US private equity house KKR in 2007, when it relocated its head office to Zug (to reflect the global nature of the group, you understand, and certainly not because of lower taxes).
Still, the company has been investing heavily in its UK operations and ploughing money into the British pension scheme, as Boots’s profits before tax here have risen steadily from £208m in 2009 to £220m in 2010 and then £240m last year. Meanwhile, the UK corporation tax bill went from £54m in 2009 to £45m in 2010 and £42m in 2011. Funny, that.