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Look closely in the land of the cuckoo clock

Switzerland. Picture perfect, with its snow-capped mountains, glistening lakes and clean air. In fact, air pollution is a major environmental concern in Switzerland.

The country has a similar ‘clean' image when it comes to sustainable asset management. The likes of asset manager SAM, bank Sarasin, foundation Ethos and ESG investment consultancy onValues give the impression that Swiss investors are leaders in terms of implementing ESG criteria into their investment process.

However, Swiss pension funds and other institutions are more laggards than leaders in the field of ESG compared with the Nordic countries or the Netherlands.

A number of issues are at the root of their reluctance to integrate ESG, some of which will take a long time to address.

Swiss pension funds are most likely to embed governance issues in their portfolios. One particular popular topic of engagement concerns executive pay.

According to an Ethos survey, top executive remuneration makes up, on average, 2-5% of the net income of a company, often lowering the value of a company.

But there is a good chance that Swiss company boards will take significant votes against their pay proposals seriously and maybe improve their suggested pay packages.

Two companies Ethos voted against on management pay structures in 2011 - Givaudan and Kuoni - made several improvements to their remuneration system over the year, leading to approvals at their 2012 AGMs.

But whether this will become a global trend following the 2012 voting season remains to be seen. This year's ‘shareholder spring' has certainly sent strong signals to company boards that fewer and fewer domestic shareholders are happy to sit by idly as executive directors continue to take home large sums of money, despite falling share prices and smaller dividends.

In the UK, Hermes Equity Ownership Services has come up with reform proposals on executive remuneration. The proposed move towards a plain shareholding approach was a result of a meeting between company remuneration representatives and pension funds. But it seems all voluntary efforts are a bit late to avoid some kind of intervention by the regulator.

A consultation by the UK's department for business, innovation and skills on binding votes on future remuneration policies and exit payments closed in late April.

And even in Switzerland, domestic law is likely to provide a mandatory vote on executive pay in the near future - just to clean up the industry.

 

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