You know the corporate gravy train has reached a bumpy section of the line when a vilified ex-banker is stripped of his knighthood.

Across the western world, more than four years of recession and economic stagnation has left super-sized salaries, bonuses and golden handshakes deeply unpopular with the masses and brought pay inequality to the forefront of global debate.

The establishment is feeling the pressure of public perception. This week Britain's Cabinet Office announced it had cancelled former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin's knighthood because he had brought the honours system "into disrepute".

Goodwin, who was knighted in 2004, ran RBS into the ground before being forced out of the company in 2008. He managed to keep his $30.5 million pension package despite the British Government having to bail out the firm to the tune of £45 billion ($85.5 billion), leaving UK taxpayers with an 82 per cent stake in the bank.


Britain's Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron, has backed calls to regulate excessive remuneration, including introducing legally binding shareholder votes on executive pay.

George Soros, the arch-capitalist famous for making US$1 billion in a single day on a bet against the British pound, has spoken in support of the Occupy movement, which began in New York last year and quickly spread around the globe.

The tide appears to be turning against those the Occupy protesters have dubbed "the 1 per cent".

But is pay inequality as much of an issue in New Zealand as in places like Britain and the US?

The Occupy protests seen here - with camps set up in centres including Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin - was a bit of a fizzer, and failed to garner widespread support.

That could have been the result of relatively low unemployment and a more solid economic situation in this part of the world compared with Europe or the US, combined with what many people perceived as an unclear protest message.

Compared with their US and UK counterparts, the pay packets for top Kiwi chief executives can seem tame, and large-scale public outrage against their salaries is rare.

The bosses of this country's biggest listed firms, state-owned enterprises and the dairy co-operative Fonterra received an average total pay (including bonuses, stock options and termination benefits) of $1.6 million in 2010, a 14 per cent increase on the previous year, according to the Business Herald's executive pay survey.

In the UK, figures compiled by independent research organisation Income Data Services show the chief executives of the FTSE 100 companies received an average pay of £2.7 million ($5.1 million) in 2010, with an average rise in their remuneration of 43 per cent.

Bosses of companies in Wall St's S&P 500 index enjoyed an average increase in their total compensation of 36.8 per cent in 2010, according to survey by Britain's Guardian.

It found the 10 most well-paid US CEOs earned more than US$770 million between them that year.

The top earner - John Hammergreen, chief executive of McKesson, the world's biggest healthcare firm - made more than US$145 million, largely through stock options, according to the Guardian.

While the $5.8 million dished out to Westpac NZ boss George Frazis, New Zealand's most well-paid chief executive in 2010, pales in comparison, the remuneration of NZ captains of industry is on the rise.

According to the Business Herald's pay survey, average chief executive remuneration increased by almost 90 per cent between 2004 and 2010, from $852,341 to $1.6 million.

Over the same period the average New Zealand worker's earnings saw a much more modest lift, rising 27 per cent from around $33,800 to almost $43,000, according to Statistics NZ.

The number of New Zealand CEOs being paid more than $1 million has also increased dramatically over the past 11 years, from one in 2001 - when former Fonterra chief Craig Norgate became this country's first "million-dollar man" - to 26 in 2010.

Comparing the average salary paid in a large, NZX-listed company with what's paid to its chief executive also highlights stark discrepancies.

For example, in the 2011 financial year The Warehouse's former chief executive Ian Morrice received a remuneration package worth almost $2 million. The average salary paid to the firm's 8013 staff during the same period was $32,560. It would take more than 60 years to match Morrice's 12-month pay.

The Warehouse chairman Graham Evans says it's important to note that Morrice received such a high salary because he was employed to run an Australasian firm when he joined the company in 2004, before the company pulled out of Australia in 2005.

The $1 million base salary paid to Mark Powell, the retailer's new chief executive, is "the right going rate for a company of our size and market capitalisation", Evans says.

Business commentator Brian Gaynor reckons the control of listed firms has been removed from the owners and placed in the hands of management, largely because the dominant shareholders are institutions that have little interest in corporate governance issues.

Another factor driving up the salaries of New Zealand listed company bosses is the effort made to keep their pay competitive with Aussie CEOs, who in turn have their remuneration boosted to keep up with what's being paid in the US, Gaynor says.

He says chief executive salaries are causing "huge arguments" in local firms, particularly around bosses receiving bonuses based on adjusted, rather than actual, earnings.

He says the Occupy movement has relevance to the situation in New Zealand, as executive pay has been accelerating rapidly, increasing the inequality between bosses and staff.

"The worst thing is the huge payments some chief executives get when they leave [their companies]," Gaynor says.

"Many times over the last 10 to 15 years the highest paid chief executives have been those who have performed the worst."

Council of Trade Unions secretary Peter Conway says that while income inequality is not as bad in this country as the US or Britain, the situation is far from perfect.

"I definitely do think it is a problem here," he says. "It's symptomatic of relatively low wages in New Zealand."

Last month Christchurch City Council chief executive Tony Marryatt was forced to reject his controversial $68,000 pay rise in the face of a public outcry, and Conway says such discontent could spread to the private sector, particularly if there is pay inequality combined with disputes over other issues.

BusinessNZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly doesn't think this country has anything like the pay inequality seen in major western economies.

The fact that New Zealand is a "broadly egalitarian society" helps keep executive pay in check, he says.

And he doubts increased government regulation, such as proposed in Britain, is the answer to control.

"We've got to be very careful that we don't get into a situation where risk itself is a dirty word or inequality all by itself is a dirty word ... in fact inequality is a very important factor in getting dynamism in an economy, otherwise we'll all be equally poor."

Kiwis eye UK bid to rein in pay

The New Zealand Shareholders' Association is watching with interest the progress of proposed regulations put forward by the British Government aimed at reining in excessive executive pay, says the group's corporate liaison, Des Hunt.

The regulations, which will require legislation, include giving shareholders in the UK binding votes on executive pay that would effectively give investors veto power over remuneration packages they deem inappropriate.

That follows legislation introduced across the Tasman last year giving Aussie shareholders the power to vote on a motion to "spill" a board of directors if a firm's remuneration report receives a "no" vote from 25 per cent or more of its investors at two successive annual meetings.

"The Shareholders' Association is looking with interest at what's happening in Britain and Australia but would prefer no regulation," Hunt says.

But he says that if NZX-listed firms don't introduce the kinds of changes his organisation is pushing for, such as greater transparency in annual reports, then such measures could be the only other option.

The investor group is asking companies to publish a single page in annual reports comparing key performance indicators.

Mainfreight managing director Don Braid said he was unsure whether the kinds of measures being floated in the UK were required in New Zealand. "I think shareholders appoint and approve directors of the company to do that job and that's where the responsibility lies," he said.