HSBC <0005.HK> faced a fresh backlash from investors on Friday over high executive pay and mediocre returns, echoing the stinging attacks of a year ago that it had tried to duck by revamping its remuneration package.

Nearly 20 percent of shareholders rejected the new payout proposals, which include lower caps on long-term incentive share payouts -- only a marginal improvement on the nearly 25 percent of investors that voted against its 2010 report.

Europe's largest bank received a bigger pushback on pay than its British peers, despite a year of lobbying to get shareholders on board with its new policy, which was ultimately approved.

How greedy is this board of directors? asked private shareholder Michael Mason-Mahon, as other investors called on HSBC to take a lead in moving away from wildly excessive remuneration at board level.

It is getting obscene, private shareholder John Farmer said.

One contentious issue raised was the criteria HSBC said it would use when awarding payouts. These include brand and reputation as well as cost efficiency, but no specific measure on total shareholder return.

The response to HSBC's new pay plan had looked promising when it won the early backing of one its fiercest critics of previous years, Standard Life Investments Plc .

Standard Life had voted against the pay plan for three years in a row, but said this time that the bank had taken to heart the lessons of the banking crisis.

The revamped pay format includes limiting long-term incentive plan share payouts to six times basic salary, from seven times, and makes it harder for employees to cash in quickly on rewards.

Staff also have to hold on to shares until they retire or leave the bank.

But other investor bodies had already voiced reservations over the pay plan.

Share advisory group Pirc slammed elements such as the provisions for golden hellos, a recruitment incentive whereby employees are rewarded for joining from another firm. It also questioned the lack of a cap on salaries.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI), whose members own almost 15 percent of investments listed on the London stock market, had issued a so-called amber top alert to raise its concerns.

It did the same over compensation proposals put forward by British rival Barclays Plc , though the firm's pay plan was passed after opposition from only about a tenth of investors.

This was despite criticism it had faced over its potentially lucrative bonus system for high flyers and a salary hike for chief executive Bod Diamond.

Even Royal Bank of Scotland , which had to be bailed out during the crisis and faces constant public scrutiny over the pay of its bankers, had its remuneration plan approved by over 99 percent of investors.

It was helped by its one major shareholder however, the government, which has an 83 percent holding in the bank.


HSBC, which has started a cost-cutting drive to increase profits, said it was committed to improving returns.

But chairman Douglas Flint also defended high pay across the bank, a particularly pressing issue in Asia, where competition for staff is tough.

It would be irresponsible to allow our comparative advantages to wither by ignoring the market forces that exist around compensation, even though we understand how sensitive this subject is, Flint said.

He acknowledged, however, that shareholder returns were disappointing and inadequate.

Earlier this month, newly installed Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver unveiled a retreat from retail banking in a host of countries, aimed at tackling a jump in costs that dragged down first-quarter profits 14 percent.

Gulliver, who rose to the top job earlier this year after a boardroom tussle in 2010, is targeting up to $3.5 billion in costs savings through the overhaul, which could also involve Europe's largest bank offloading its U.S. credit card arm.

Amid queries over the bank's growth strategy, HSBC also faced uncomfortable questions over its relationship with the Libyan government, after reports surfaced this week saying HSBC held assets from the country's oil fund.

Flint argued that Libya had been rehabilitated by the international community in 2006, which explained why it had enjoyed access to the international financial system again, before being cast aside this year.

He refused to be drawn on whether HSBC had any connection to the Libyan government.

(Additional reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by David Holmes and Will Waterman)