July 22, 2019 / 7:00 AM / 5 months ago

PREVIEW-Australia's Macquarie bank faces shareholder backlash over pay

* Investors urged to vote against Macquarie’s pay plans

* ASA says investment bank’s remuneration is opaque

* Proxy firm concerned with acceleration of benefits to former CEO

* Performance hurdles not sufficiently rigorous - ASA

By Paulina Duran and Byron Kaye

SYDNEY, July 22 (Reuters) - Australia’s biggest retail shareholder group has asked investors to reject the executive pay plans of investment bank Macquarie Group, accusing it of withholding pertinent information and setting overly achievable performance targets.

The Australian Shareholders Association (ASA) said the bank’s remuneration report gives incomplete and confusing information about its “uncommon remuneration structure”.

The ASA called on shareholders to reject the pay proposals at Macquarie’s annual meeting on Thursday, and urged the bank to release the findings of an internal investigation into its governance and culture.

“The reason we are voting against it is the lack of transparency,” ASA monitor Alan Goldin said by telephone.

Macquarie executives had met every performance hurdle for each of the previous five years, and “if you keep making a hurdle, it’s not really a hurdle,” Goldin added.

Under Australian law, if more than a quarter of a company’s shareholders vote against its remuneration report for two years running, shareholders can call for a subsequent vote on whether to sack the entire board.

Australian banks are facing a new trend of heightened shareholder scrutiny after a public inquiry into the financial sector last year found widespread wrongdoing and serious flaws in the management of compliance and risk.

But until now Macquarie, which has posted record profits every year since 2013, has been spared the kind of pressure for greater transparency that shareholders have applied to Australia’s four big retail banks.

A bone of contention for some advisers is the bank’s decision to accelerate from 7 to 2 years the vesting period of deferred equity - worth about A$88 million ($61.9 million) - awarded to previous CEO Nicholas Moore.

Australia’s biggest wealth manager, AMP Ltd, and its biggest lenders - Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac Banking Corp and National Australia Bank - have had their remuneration reports voted down in recent years.

The ASA’s hundreds of Macquarie shareholders represent less than a quarter of the bank’s share register, limiting its chances of getting a successful “no” vote.

Proxy advisers Institutional Shareholders Services Inc, Glass Lewis and Co, and Ownership Matters, which vote on behalf of institutional investors at AGMs, said they had concerns about Macquarie’s remuneration but would vote to approve them at the meeting.

Macquarie was among 32 major financial institutions told by the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, the financial sector watchdog, last year to provide self-assessments of their risk-management strategies. It was one of just two major banks which declined to make the reports public.

The bank would not publish the governance report because it contained commercially sensitive information, a Macquarie spokeswoman said. She declined to comment on criticism about the bank’s remuneration practices. ($1 = 1.4221 Australian dollars) (Reporting by Paulina Duran; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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