Thursday, June 11, 2009

Executive Compensation-Government is Not Going Away

Corporate governance is a topic that many of us tend to ignore, leaving it to the institutions or corporate raiders that are looking to influence the strategic direction, the capital allocation, the corporate structures or the compensation structures of business.

Yet, the way business is run should matter to us all. We need the goods and services it produces, or the employment it provides. As shareholders, whether directly or through our 401-Ks or pension plans, the long term wealth that corporations create is important for our old age dignity and in fact, the national prosperity. Hence, the governance of corporations affects us all whether customer, employee, citizen or shareholder. The effectiveness of corporate governance is indeed a factor in determining whether companies survive and prosper or stumble and fail.

Some years ago, Jonathan Charkham noted in his book, Keeping Good Company :

“It is difficult to escape the conclusion that government has a role here as it is the only power in any land which can strike a balance between the conflicting wishes of competing interests. Furthermore, the framework within which these interests compete is one of government’s own making. Everywhere the corporation is a creature of statue not nature, designed to encourage the continuity of power that the sophistication of modern economies require. It is not government’s role to double-guess individual commercial decisions-but to ensure as best it can, that the structure it creates for companies contains checks and balances that are effective in resolving the tensions between differing legitimate claims.”

One does not undermine one’s dedication to capitalism by believing that companies are more than just engines to maximize return on capital. After all, one could repeal child labor laws, ignore plant safety, ignore anti-trust and thereby maximize profitability, but at what cost to society?

Playing for very high stakes has been an ongoing theme in American capitalism probably since Alfred Sloan of GM declared that “The business of business is business.” Excessive and sometimes fraudulent risks, competition, and the increasing size and complexity of organizations: these three factors have been at the heart of every corporate breakdown and crash and burn. The call for greater regulation and greater scrutiny has followed every scandal, for example, the salad oil scandal of the mid-1960’s resulted in more stringent commodity trading regulation after nearly taking down American Express and causing significant loan losses in the banking system.

So it is little wonder that the Obama administration has begun to scrutinize certain aspects of corporate governance, in particular, an effort to rein in executive compensation. Though far from setting executive pay ceilings at all corporations, the new compensation czar – lawyer and mediator Kenneth Feinberg – will have broad discretion to set the pay for roughly 175 top executives at seven of the country's largest companies, which received billions in government loans. He will set the salaries and bonuses of some of the top financiers and industrialists in the United States including Fritz Henderson (GM), Vikram Pandit (Citigroup), and Ken Lewis (B 0f A).

The Obama administration argues that poorly designed compensation packages encouraged some Wall Street executives to take on excess risk in the mortgage market and elsewhere, which in turn helped trigger the financial crisis and a global recession. As Barney Frank, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services observed (bolded words are my emphasis):

“It is not the role of government to set policy regarding the amounts that are paid in compensation to top executives, nor to deal with the question of how that compensation is allocated among salary, bonuses, retirement packages, etc. But as Secretary Geithner’s remarks recognized, there are two very important points that we should address.”

“First, shareholders must be empowered to have a major role in the process of setting overall compensation. While it is not the government’s role to say that a certain amount is too much, it is very much the right of the people who own the company to speak out if they think excessive compensation is being proposed. The system of say-on-pay that was piloted in England is a reasonable way to do this, and I was proud that the House adopted the bill that came from the Financial Services Committee to institute this in 2007. Unfortunately, the bill did not go forward in the Senate, but I am optimistic that with the support of the President, we will be able to enact this important principle into law. Recent evidence in England shows that when shareholders are in fact troubled by excessive compensation, say-on-pay is an effective tool for them.

“I also agree with Secretary Geithner’s annunciation of the principles that should guide the structure of compensation – not the amount. But I differ with his view that this can be accomplished by strengthening the independence of compensation committees. Given the inherently close relationship that exists between CEOs and other top executives on the one hand, and boards of directors on the other, it is very unlikely that you will ever get the degree of independence that will allow the boards of directors to be left completely on their own to set compensation. That is part of the reason for say-on-pay. But it is also the reason why legislation should be adopted that instructs the Securities and Exchange Commission to set principles which prevent boards from providing compensation systems that lead to excessive risk taking.

Many proxy statements this year contained “say on pay” shareholder proposals, almost all of which were opposed by managements. I am strongly in favor of such proposals which now appear to become the law of the land. Though these proposals are not enforceable per se, they do provide moral suasion and have had influence in European countries that have adopted the practice for example, Royal Dutch Shell. See also the recent impact in some UK retailers.

Proxy statements frequently contain a report from the compensation committee which generally outlines the company’s philosophy of compensation, what it uses as its peer group for a model of compensation, and what sorts of behavior are being rewarded both short and long term. In general, the compensation committee charter suggests that compensation should align managers’ interests with those of shareholders. An excellent template for what should be part of the compensation committee’s report was recently produced by the California State Teachers Retirement System. Among the points that CSTRS suggests is some specificity regarding the role of risk in incentive compensation:

The role of risk in the context of the executive compensation program, which should include both a defensive perspective (how the committee ensures potential compensation does not incentivize excessive risk), and an offensive perspective (how the program is designed to incentivize appropriate risk and aligns the interests of management with those of long-term owners)”

Our summer intern, Drew Levine, recently completed a study of proxies that we have voted at our firm and run some statistics on components of executive compensation trends versus share price performance. If shareholder and management interests are truly aligned, one would expect some degree of correlation between comp and share performance. Sadly, that has not been the case. Here are some of Drew’s observations:

After conducting analysis of executive compensation data, it is safe to say that there is little to no correlation between stock price performance and compensation. The data compiled is from a tumultuous time in the stock market where nearly all of the companies we voted on stocks were down. One would think that because the company's stock performed so poorly the executives pay would subsequently suffer, but that was certainly not the case in some instances. The strongest correlation in the data was the percentage increase or decrease in bonus compensation in relation to stock price performance. However that measure of correlation was still extremely low at .21 for the CEO and .16 for the CFO. It's shocking to see that there really is no correlation between pay and performance because one would think that would be the most basic and truest basis for compensation. What I found most surprising was the average salary and total compensation growth from 2006-2008. It is amazing to see that although the majority of these companies were struggling with the economic downturn, the average salary growth for the CEO in 2008 was 74.9% and their total compensation growth for 2008 was 25.7%. What this indicates is that executives are increasingly taking more base pay with the knowledge that because their company's stock won't perform well, they will not get the oversized bonuses that they were used to receiving just a few years ago. Although, when looking through the data, it was relieving to see that in most of the companies the executives did not receive bonuses for 2007 and 2008.

In 2007 and 2008, we surveyed 79 and 92 CEO's respectively, and 55 and 81 CFO's respectively. This was due to new hires and fires at the executive positions. From year end 2006 to year end 2007, the average stock price of the company's surveyed was up 26.7%. From year end 2007 to year end 2008, the average stock price was down 40%. The average salary for the CEO in 2007 and 2008 was just over $1,000,000 and the average salary for the CFO during the same time frame was around $600,000. The average bonus for the CEO and CFO in 2007 was over $1,000,000 each with that number decreasing to about $450,000 for the CEO and $300,000 for the CFO in 2008.

For the 2009 proxies we voted, we emphasized voting for "best practices" such as shareholder's votes on executive compensation (say-on-pay) and shareholder's ability to call special meetings. Many people forget that the shareholders are the real owners of the company and that management is working for us. For that reason we find it important to vote every proxy for companies which our clients hold shares and not just throw them away like many shareholders do.

Looking at total compensation for the CEOs rather than just bonuses, the correlation to share price performance is non-existent at -0.03. Apparently, CFO total comp has a somewhat stronger link to share price performance at a still rather weak 0.19. Here is a spreadsheet of our compensation study and the statistical correlations that we observed.

Last year, the CATO Institute published a paper on Executive Pay Regulation versus Market Competition by Ira Kay and Steven van Putten which argues that: “The misperceptions that drive regulatory efforts are grounded in the idea that the market for executives is not competitive and that pay levels do not reflect supply and demand for talent” (pg. 1). Kay and Van Putten argue that the “myth of managerial power”, executives control over the board which sets their compensation, leads to greater regulation because lawmakers believe that the market is rigged as they put it. The authors present evidence to the contrary that says that the market is actually competitive and that the appropriate level of executive compensation tracks performance.

This may well have been the case but we face a new reality. We had better become accustomed to the idea of big government as regulations to restore financial order come into force. Jeff Immelt, in a recent address to the International Economic Forum in Montreal stated it most succinctly, “The government has moved in next door and it ain’t leaving. You could fight it if you want but society wants change. And government is not going away.”


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