17 March 2012

The new capitalism—reward without risk

Royal Dutch Shell chief executive Peter Voser earned more than $15-million in pay and bonuses in 2011, more than double his remuneration for 2010. Last year also saw Shell increase its oil spills to 207, substantially more than the previous year.

The two are not related of course, but the coincidence is interesting. Voser wasn't penalized for his company's oil spills, presumably because he wasn't considered responsible for them, however he was lavishly rewarded for something that he wasn't responsible for either. His extraordinary pay increase resulted from Shell's strong operating and share-price performance in 2011—annual earnings were up 54 per cent over 2010. The impressive financial success was not, however, Mr. Voser's doing, but rather because of high oil prices and surging demand for natural gas.

Being rewarded when things go right but avoiding consequences when things go wrong seems to be typical of the new capitalism. For example, when American banks were selling huge amounts of questionable securities at escalating prices, they made billions, but when their shady practices caused the market to crash and they were faced with massive losses, the government, i.e. the American taxpayer, bailed them out. Exhibiting the inflated sense of self-worth characteristic of modern CEOs, their executives continued to collect fat bonuses. Under the old capitalism, entrepreneurs reaped the rewards of doing things right and paid the consequences of doing things wrong. Reward was tempered by risk. Under the new capitalism, only the first half of that equation seems to apply.

The new capitalism is selective of course. It only applies to members of the "Too Big to Fail" club. Smaller companies still have to labour under the strict rules of the old capitalism: do well and you are rewarded, do badly and you are penalized. Life is not fair.

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