About a year ago, corporate governance proponents might have looked longingly across the Atlantic, and wished that the United States could be more like Britain. In a highly publicized reaction to the financial crisis, the United Kingdom created a Corporate Governance Code, citing the need for strong rules to help reduce risk.
But just one year later, British corporate affairs look little different than our own, at least in one sense. Despite overall poor economic conditions, CEO pay is one of the country's only economic factors on the road to recovery.
A recent article featured on our British sister site, Motley Fool U.K., shows that Great Britain remains far too similar to us in its companies' vast disconnect between executive pay and corporate performance.
Despite fighting words about new rules last year, the median average pay of FTSE 100 CEOs still increased by 32% in 2010, according to U.K. pay consultants MM&K and corporate governance agency Manifest. The British don't even have some crazy bull market to thank. The FTSE 100 index only rose by 9% last year.
The rise in CEO pay across the pond mirrors recent headlines right here at home. On average, major American CEOs pocketed significant pay increases last year. Compensation firm Equilar recently reported that S&P 500 chief executives' total rewards jumped 24% in 2010.
We can't even credit any great recovery in the U.K.'s economy for these pay hikes. Earlier this week, the British Chambers of Commerce reduced its growth forecasts for the nation's economy, blaming high inflation as the major culprit for pinching British shoppers' budgets and blocking a consumer-led recovery.
So, in another U.S./British parallel, even though many citizens still feel financially mired in a recession, chief executives' bank balances are somehow already making up for lost ground.
Average CEO pay in Britain is now 120 times that of the average worker. Don't worry -- in this regard, America's still got the dubious lead. The AFL-CIO's most recent data said the average U.S. CEO's pay was a whopping 343 times that of the average worker.
Signs of the times
Still, shareholder and public ire has begun to spur change, both here and abroad. British retail giant Tesco just cut CEO pay after a major shareholder revolt last year, in which many shareholders either abstained or voted against its pay plans.
Right here in the U.S., a small but significant number of companies have experienced the embarrassment of rejected compensation plans. A few of the most recent losers include Weatherford International
For the last week, we've been profiling major companies' executive pay and corporate performance on Fool.com, challenging shareholders to question whether their CEOs are worth it. The businesses under our microscope have included Adobe
You've got the power, now use it
The news of continued increases in CEO pay is pretty astounding given all the tough talk last year. Here at home, the Dodd-Frank Act included several shareholder-friendly mandates. Yet many corporate leaders and boards still haven't gotten the memo that they might want to preemptively change their poorer policies, including reining in outrageous pay for lackluster performance.
Whether here or abroad, corporate governance rules may only be as strong as the folks they're meant to empower. If we shareholders want managers and boards to stop squandering our money, we'll have to actually use our newfound rights.
Check back at Fool.com on Wednesday, June 8 for Alyce Lomax's next column on environmental, social, and governance issues.