Cable wages war on British boardrooms

VINCE Cable will today launch a scathing attack on British business, announcing a wide-ranging investigation into company takeovers, executive pay and corporate governance.

The business secretary will use a keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat conference to wage war on large companies, promising to “shine a harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour”.

Cable is also expected to slam so-called “short-term shareholders” that buy stock in anticipation of a takeover offer, as well as investment banks and others who earn fees by advising on corporate mergers and acquisitions.

“The principle of responsible ownership should apply across the business world. Let me be quite clear. The government’s agenda is not one of laissez-faire. Markets are often irrational or rigged,” Cable is expected to tell Liberal Democrat members in Liverpool.

“Why should good companies be destroyed by short term investors looking for a speculative killing, while their accomplices in the City make fat fees? Why do directors forget their wider duties when a fat cheque is waved before them? Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can.”

The business secretary’s speech comes as the government prepares to merge the UK Listing Authority (UKLA) with the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), creating a “powerful companies regulator” to police big firms.

Such a regulator would be housed under the auspices of Cable’s business department, allowing him to crack down on executive pay, corporate takeovers and perceived flaws in corporate governance.

Yesterday, the FRC – which will emerge from the shake-up as an organisation with significantly more power – welcomed Cable’s announcement. “We fully support the minister’s focus on both tackling short-termism and encouraging shareholder responsibility,” said FRC chief executive Stephen Haddrill.

But employers’ group the CBI hit out at the business secretary’s comments, insisting his anti-capitalist comments were at odds with the government’s oft-stated aim of a private sector recovery.

Richard Lambert, CBI director-general, said: “Of course Cable is right to say that the principle of responsible ownership should apply across the business world. But it’s odd that he thinks it sensible to use such emotional language.”

He added: “The case for corporate takeovers is that they allow control of poorly run businesses to pass into more efficient hands. Cable has harsh things to say about the capitalist system: it will be interesting to hear his ideas for an alternative.”

The business secretary’s comments came as a raft of politicians and establishment figures stepped up their war of words on the City.

Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, used his Mansion House speech to claim that “absurd bonuses for excessive risk taking” and “an explosion of exotic socially useless product development” were partly to blame for the economic crisis, though he was at pains also to blame bad policies.

And Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said it was “ethically wrong” for people to use accountants to cut their tax bills.

Clegg and Cable also said the government would be willing to impose a tax on bankers’ bonuses if banks don’t show “restraint” in the forthcoming remuneration round, although aides to the chancellor said there was little chance of a re-run of Labour’s one-off bonus tax.