Of course, the proportion of companies that lose a vote in any season is tiny (very rough guess: less than 2% of the All Share) and the "shareholder spring" itself had only a handful of defeats. So really investors only needed to turn the dial by one notch to deliver a record season. I suggested that getting defeats into double figures, while still meaning 95% of companies get shareholder approval, would send a pretty important signal.
It's pretty clear now that is unlikely to happen. So far there have only been two pay defeats - Pearson and Crest Nicholson - and both were on the advisory remuneration report vote, not the binding remuneration policy vote. This means that, for all the pre-season puffery, no companies have been given a binding direction by their shareholders because of their approach to executive pay. However you cut it, this year's AGM "fireworks" have been duds.
However, the other thing that is being put about in the business pages is that while, yes, there haven't been the number of defeats people were expecting this is because of successful shareholder engagement behind the scenes. There are couple of examples being briefed of companies pulling resolutions before the vote to avoid defeat, or making big concessions during engagement with shareholders.
I'm a bit sceptical for a couple of reasons. First, this is a line I have heard quite a lot over the years, primarily from asset managers that tend to vote with management most of the time. So it's not clear to what extent the engagement that has taken place this year differs from other seasons. Second, companies are not stupid. Like any good negotiators, in a tricky situation they are going to go into an engagement with a headline ask, and an acceptable fallback position. We don't know to what extent the agreements that are being agreed between companies and asset managers represent where the former party wanted to be in the first place.
Which leads onto the key point in all this. No-one outside the closed circle of corporate executives, asset managers and remuneration consultants really knows what is going on. Because asset managers prioritise confidentiality in engagement, exactly what deals are thrashed out - and who amongst them is doing the most thrashing! - is not information that is available to the public. I know there are some good people out there who do feel a responsibility to try and bring some of the public concern about executive pay into their discussions with companies. But I know there is a lot of bullshit out there too. I have been hearing the "we are engaging behind the scenes" line from asset managers that I know put little pressure on for about 15 years.
Many of the people who exercised the votes that approved the executive pay arrangements that are apparently now egregious are still pushing the same (Vote For...) buttons. Are we sure that they have changed? In my experience, many people within asset management continue to hold views on executive pay that are well to the Right of the public (who are often considered to hold very ill-informed views about the value of executive talent). It's not obvious that we should conclude that there has been a real change unless we get some real evidence.
So I would not advise people (including business journos) to accept the "it's all getting sorted out in private" line uncritically. More generally, I don't think the current position is going to hold for the asset management industry. Executive pay continues to be a subject of public debate, and anger. This season the headline output of what shareholders do - votes - may fall rather short of the pre-match build-up. In fact, it could be interpreted as evidence that shareholder oversight is far too weak a tool. But I don't think arguing that "we're sorting it out in private but can't tell you about it" is going to convince many waverers that actually yet another season where the vast majority of companies got approval is actually OK.
In the current environment does making private deals between corporate executives and major financial institutions, and telling the public they can't be allowed in, over an issue as politically charged as executive pay look like a great outcome? I think shareholders are going to have to become much more open about their engagement and its results, and they really need to think about the public output that voting in favour but engaging privately creates. Even so, I am not sure another season where even people who follow executive pay will have seen very little happen is going to do much to stop the the drift away from shareholder oversight as a public policy tool.