HSBC Holdings Plc said about 19 percent of shareholders voted against the bank’s executive pay report, marking the biggest protest over compensation among the U.K.’s five biggest banks this year.
“Does it cause us a sense of concern? I guess to be honest, not,” said Chief Executive Officer Stuart Gulliver in an interview following the decision at its annual general meeting in London today. “These are simple 50 percent majorities, so you need to get to 51 percent, therefore a substantial part of the shareholder base beyond that voted in favor.”
Last year, about 13 percent opposed the London-based bank’s pay report. Barclays Plc last month said that 9.7 percent of shareholders voted against its executive pay report, compared with 8.1 percent at Lloyds Banking Group Plc, 7.8 percent at Standard Chartered Plc and less than 1 percent at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc.
The vote follows a February pledge by HSBC and other British banks to pay less in bonuses for 2010 than in the previous year. Chairman Douglas Flint said that while HSBC understood that banker pay was a “sensitive” issue, the payments were essential to retain employees.
“Our best people are highly marketable,” Flint told the meeting. “It would be irresponsible to allow our comparative advantages to wither by ignoring the market forces that exist around compensation, even though we understand how sensitive this subject is.”
At least eight individual shareholders spoke against HSBC’s executive remuneration plan at the London meeting, with one describing the bank’s pay levels as “obscene.”
About 14 percent of shareholders also voted against the bank’s 2011 executive share plan, which would see Gulliver paid as much as 13.3 million pounds ($21.8 million) this year. Awards under the new long-term incentive plan would vest after five years and be subject to so-called malus provisions under which HSBC could withhold them.
Flint became chairman and Gulliver CEO following a succession struggle last year, triggered when former Chairman Stephen Green stepped down to join the British government.
Standard Life Plc Investment Director Jonathan Cobb said he was “dismayed by the manner and timing,” of board changes.
In response to a question from a shareholder, Flint said the bank’s acquisition of U.S. subprime lender Household International in 2003, now known as HSBC Finance, is “a very black mark on our history.”
“We wish we could change history, but we can’t,” said Flint.
HSBC Finance has contributed to more than $60 billion of provisions in the bank’s North American unit.
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