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File photo of Electrolux's new headquarters in Stockholm. (SCANPIX/REUTERS)
File photo of Electrolux's new headquarters in Stockholm. (SCANPIX/REUTERS)

Sweden, where CEOs come cheap and still deliver Add to ...

Highly paid executives in the United States and Britain take note – your Swedish counterparts are paid much less, yet still deliver strong corporate results.

While investors around the world are rising up against excessive executive pay in a movement dubbed “the shareholder spring”, there has been barely a peep in Sweden – with good reason.

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In a country famed for restraint and long social democratic traditions, Sweden’s executives are generally rewarded far less than rivals in the rest of Europe and the United States and appear to perform just as well, or better, for shareholders.

“Abroad, things have really spun out of control in many cases ... especially in the United States and Britain,” said Carl Johan Hogbom, acting head of Aktiespararna, the Swedish Shareholders’ Association, referring to executive pay rises.

“We have, relatively speaking, a pretty sound wage structure here.”

The purchasing power of Swedish executives ranked second lowest in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2009, a study by management consulting firm Hay Group showed, while 2007 Eurostat data put average pay for Swedish managers and senior officials about 20 per cent below their British counterparts.

At the same time, Sweden is often among the highest ranked in global competitiveness surveys while its top stocks have offered better returns than many major markets.

ThomsonReuters Datastream figures show total returns from the Stockholm bourse’s blue-chip index have risen 116 per cent over the past decade, eclipsing rises of just under 70 per cent in the U.S. Dow Jones Industrial Average and Britain’s FTSE 100.

Michael Wolf, chief executive at Swedbank, and Olof Faxander, head of industrial group Sandvik, are good examples of Sweden’s relative restraint.

Mr. Wolf earned 8.2 million Swedish crowns ($1.1-million U.S.) last year as head one of the Nordic region’s biggest banks. Along with other top executives, he is not eligible for a bonus.

“And I’m not underpaid – relative to many workers in Sweden, I am very well paid,” he said.

By contrast, Bob Diamond at Barclays, one of the focal points during the investor revolt of recent months, took home £17-million ($26-million U.S.) last year.

Barclays’ market capitalization is about twice Swedbank’s, yet Mr. Diamond’s pay was a full 23 times larger than Mr. Wolf’s.

Likewise Mr. Faxander, whose group has about 50,000 employees worldwide, received a salary package totalling just over 10 million crowns ($1.4-million U.S.) in 2011.

Pit that against Carlos Cardoso at Kennametal, a U.S. rival with 12,000 employees and a sixth of the market capitalisation of Sandvik, who made $7.6-million (U.S.) last year.

Recent months have seen widespread protests by investors against high executive pay in a rebellion that has rocked a host of companies, above all in Britain where a backlash has cost some bosses their jobs, like Andrew Moss at insurer Aviva and Sly Bailey at newspaper group Trinity Mirror.

Sweden has had executive pay scandals in the past and the media still sometimes highlight undue largesse from companies, particularly the banks, to their executives. But there has been no major shareholder revolt over pay for years.

The background is a long history of Social Democratic governments and strong unions, which have put an emphasis on spreading wealth across society.

The Swedish subconscious is also still heavily influenced by the “jantelagen” – a popular saying coined in a 1933 book, which means nobody should show off or break the mould.

Neither Mr. Wolf nor Mr. Faxander show particular resentment at being underpaid compared with European peers – unlike Martin Sorrell, chief executive of world No.1 advertising agency WPP , who vigorously defended a £6.8-million pay award in the face of opposition from shareholders.

Mr. Faxander said Swedish wages for managers were set under a good system and signalled executives might be prepared to take lower pay than they could obtain abroad in exchange for other benefits, like a high standard of living and attractive scenery.

“ People are comfortable in the country where they live and that has an effect,” he added.

The point is born out by a still unpublished Novus poll – the results of which were provided to Reuters – of about 1,300 managers and executives for Ledarna, the Swedish Organization for Managers. That showed only 4 per cent wanted to move abroad to work, hardly indicating Swedish executive talent is flooding across the borders in search of better pay.

Salary restraint at the very top may also trickle down to affect managers at lower levels. A very broad measure of managers included in a recurring Ledarna survey showed the average monthly salary at a modest 38,000 crowns ($5,200 U.S.).

“In comparison with comparable countries, we are at a lower salary level, a considerably lower level even,” Krister Andersson, statistician at Ledarna said of top executive wages.

“That may also to some extent put a cap on (salaries) for managers at lower levels. I mean, it is not often you make more money than your CEO, even if you are in upper management.”

But there are signs things may be slowly changing and from the viewpoint of the average worker Swedish executives are still living an enviable lifestyle.

Sweden has seen the steepest increase in inequality over 15 years among the OECD’s 34 nations, with disparities rising at four times the pace of the United States.

A study by the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) also underlined the widening gulf, showing the average income in a pool of top corporate executives had risen to 46 times the mean industry worker wage in 2010 from a low of 9 times in 1980.

Swedish companies have also not been immune to criticism.

Appliances maker Electrolux was slammed for awarding its CEO Keith McLoughlin, one of only a handful of foreign top executives in Sweden, a one-time pension contribution of 45 million crowns ($6.2-million U.S.) when he took the helm in 2010, though it largely blamed it on the fact he is American.

LO Chief Economist Ola Pettersson said a gradual eroding of the income equality in Sweden since the 1980s had accelerated in recent years, threatening a lynchpin in a consensus-based corporate culture that has left labour unrest extremely rare.

“It made it easier to gain acceptance for structural changes and changes in the business when the different groups at a company felt that they, at least to some extent, were in the same boat,” he said. “You can’t say that is true anymore.”

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