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Richard Leblanc: Ten reasons that pay governance is broken

Executive pay is always in the news. Just last week an executive of Yahoo walked away with what was said to be a 100M parachute. I was interviewed by CBC radio on upcoming sunshine laws that are going to be enacted in Alberta. Last month, Ontario Power Generation fired three executives after an auditor general’s report on excessive compensation. The Premier of Ontario has vowed to crack down on excessive public sector executive compensation.

Do politicians have a track record of properly addressing compensation? I don’t believe so. Here are ten reasons that the governance of executive pay is broken, starting with politicians.

Politicians. Politicians have been the single greatest driver of increasing executive pay. Transparency or “sunshine” laws that politicians enact enable executives to utilize the pay of other executives to exert upwards pressure and threaten to leave, which is difficult to counteract. Transparency is good, but transparency without any guidance towards pay setting results in pay spiraling upwards. There is not a single jurisdiction that introduced pay transparency where pay has gone down. There was a time where executive pay was written within an envelope in a top desk drawer, and the focus in pay negotiations was on what the executive can do for the company, not what everyone else was earning.

Pay consultants. Pay consultants use this pay data and sell it back to the company in the form of “peer benchmarking,” which consultants have cleverly invented, which is now the predominant way to set pay. This means executive pay is driven by cherry-picked larger companies at the 75th or 90th percentile, resulting in a baked-in pay increase to the executive irrespective of performance.

Lack of professional standards. Lawyers and accountants can lose their license if they breach their fiduciary duty to their clients. They (we) have professional standards and rule-books addressing the duty of care, conflicts of interest, fee arrangements, continuing education, and just about everything you can think of to ensure the client is well served. Compensation consultants have no such obligations. Anyone can put out a shingle and call him or herself a pay consultant, and they do. You can sit on a compensation committee without any compensation expertise whatsoever. The requirement to be a director is shockingly low. In many cases, you need only to be over 18, not bankrupt and not insane. Maybe it is time to raise the bar for compensation consultants and compensation committee members. When advisors have standards, and pay-settors have expertise, they will make better decision.

Unnecessary complexity. Ask any director how much did his or her CEO “earn” last year, and see if you get a consistent answer. You likely won’t. It’s a simple question that deserves a simple answer. Pay depends on whom you ask and can’t even be defined. Is it “intended,” “realized” or “realizable”? We now have multiple “vehicles” for getting all types of pay to executives, with multiple valuations and performance periods. It becomes impossible to understand, value, and compare pay to performance. Therefore, mistakes and self-interest are possible. Pay needs to be radically simplified. Complexity deliberately frustrates and obfuscates basic analysis.

Captured pay-settors. Even if a compensation committee has formally independent directors, this does not reflect social relationships, the use of company resources by the directors, interlocks, excessive tenure, over-boardedness, reciprocity, favors, exorbitant pay to directors, vacations, gifts, donations, jobs for directors’ children, and a host of other factors that my research and work with boards uncovers. The compensation committee is then an arm of management.

Short termism. Most pay metrics are short term and financial. This means the executive is being unduly enriched and is trading on the effects of his actions that materialize years down the road, or not. Pay metrics should be matched to the actual effects of performance over time, and the value chain of the company. It is impossible to align pay to performance with only short-term financial metrics. Long term, non-financial metrics must be used, and pay-settors should have the spine and competency to insist on it. (Or regulators eventually will.)

Heads I win, tails you lose, or no downside for risky behaviour. Pay needs to incorporate risk-taking. We know that risk management in many companies is immature, so how can the downside of a decision possibly be incorporated into pay? If it is not, there is no or limited downside for executives to swing for the fences. Pay metrics and awards should account explicitly for risk. Most do not. This is not an insignificant point, as risk-taking compensation fueled the financial crisis. Regulators are addressing compensation and risk, but not fast enough.

Undue influence of Management. One highly paid CEO said to me once, “I will outgun any compensation committee.” If pay is truly a free market decision between owners and executives, the power, expertise and participation of shareholders must equal that of executives. Pay committees will need surgery for this to occur, starting with shareholders determining who is on their pay committee. That way, pay committees are the agents of their owners, not management.

Directors not listening to Shareholders. Directors assume that they know what shareholders want but this is folly. Surveys reveal a wide divide between shareholders and directors on executive pay. Directors need to meet directly with shareholders without executives present. Most don’t.

Lack of oversight and accountability. In the public sector in Ontario, there have been several governance scandals, including Ontario Power Generation, eHealth, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, and Ornge, that have included compensation and spending. What this reveals is defective oversight. Governance is not government. Ministers oversee 100s of agencies, boards and commissions operating in major sectors of the economy. Without independently assured oversight, and directors chosen exclusively on merit and not pre-existing relationships, often to the Minister or party in power, these scandals will continue. Premier Kathleen Wynne would be well served to address this lack of accountability and good governance. Saskatchewan has an excellent upward reporting model involving corporate secretaries and use of governance tools I helped create that apply to all crown companies.

One of my colleagues recently said to me, on the outlook of corporate governance in 2014: “Seems like a stand pat year with lots of tinkering but nothing profound happening.” With pay governance to improve, we might need some profoundness and not as much tinkering.

The new US CEO to worker pay ratio and vested interests

The US Securities and Exchange Commission announced this week that public companies will be required to disclose the ratio of the annual total compensation paid to their CEO against compensation of that of the median worker, in the form of a ratio (e.g., 200 to one). See the proposed rule, here. One consultant estimated in a guest lecture for me that ratios could be as high as 1,000 to one. (See a list of eight companies apparently with this ratio, here.)

Other compensation consultants and lawyers have commented on the new CEO to median worker pay ratio. Advisors warn about the “law of unintended consequences” in this ratio, and how societal wealth disparity should not be laid on the doorstep of companies.

Let me fault the law of unintended consequences and wealth disparity at the doorstep not of companies but of the advisors themselves.

What happens with disclosure of pay data is revenue streams for pay advisors to boards. “Peer groups” and “benchmarking” – which is how most public company CEOs are paid – are inventions of compensation consultants. So are stock options. These concepts did not exist prior to Congress mandating greater pay disclosure.

“Peer groups” is a basket of similar or larger companies compared to one company, and “benchmarking” is a decision to pay a CEO at the 50th, 75th or 90th percentile of other CEOs. It is not in any executive’s interest to be paid compared to CEOs at smaller or less complex companies, nor to be paid as a ‘below average’ CEO, even though by definition 50% of CEOs must be below average.

This one issue – benchmarking against peer groups – has been responsible for CEO pay increases more than any other. Other academics have found that using benchmarked peer data in the above fashion results in a 17% structural year-over-year increase in CEO pay, that is unrelated to the CEO’s actual performance. This structural advantage, compounded annually, has caused the wealth disparity between CEOs and the average worker.

The pay consultants may be grinning behind closed doors because the above pay ratio will provide further built-in annuities for their firms beyond peer benchmarking and say on pay. What I predict is that compensation consultants and lawyers will do the following:

(i)             Assist companies in determining and interpreting their ratio (revenue stream number one);

(ii)           Sell the data back to companies to compare and explain ratios among their peers on an industry-by-industry basis, because average worker compensation for Bank of America will be different than that of Apple, for example (revenue stream number two); and

(iii)          Sell the data to labor groups to assist them in collective bargaining (revenue stream number three).

What happens with disclosure and data sales back to the company is that people see what others are making and their competitive rivalry creates upwards pressure on all pay. The pay consultants’ business model is predicated on comparables and this exacerbates upwards pressure because data is now provided to justify approval by boards. Thus, the law of unintended consequences is perpetuated by the very people benefitting from it: executives and pay consultants.

Boards seem powerless because the entire industry is predicated on a flawed method of paying CEOs. Downward discretion is met by threats to leave, which is also a myth. Having independent compensation committee members and independent compensation consultants, which was also recently mandated, doesn’t change the way CEOs are actually paid.

Therefore, what should a compensation committee do to prepare for the onslaught of pay ratios to come? Three things.

First, don’t let the ratio, the CEO, or the workers drive pay in either direction. Focus on governance and the actual performance within the company, not beyond it. An anomalous ratio could indicate CEO entrenchment or lack of succession, or worker retention, morale, or productivity issues.

Second, resist being overwhelmed by pay data and complexity. You are elected by shareholders to exercise your business judgment and discretion. I have interviewed numerous compensation committee members who are overwhelmed and intimidated by the glossy reports, the expertise of advisors, and the sheer complexity of how pay has morphed. Have a sense of self and the heft and confidence – and competence – to simplify, understand, and push back when you need to. You are driving the bus. Be fearless and do the right thing, as one director recently said.

Third, appreciate the vested interests of pay advisors. You are not obligated to have them. If you ask a barber if you need a haircut, you know what the answer will be. Consultants, when or if needed, work for you, the compensation committee, or at least should do so. Be very willing to oversee metrics and data that are customized to suit your organization and no one else’s.

Reforms to director compensation need to occur: Richard Leblanc

Activist investors in both Canada and the US recently proposed – for Hess Corporation and Agrium Inc. – that the independent director nominees they nominated to serve on both Hess’s and Agrium’s boards should be paid incentive pay directly by the activist investor that is tied to share price appreciation.

The rationale for this incentive pay – which has been termed “golden leashes” – was to incent new directors to the board to maximize share price.

There were several arguments against this proposal (see here and here for example), but the proposal itself raises a disconnect between how current independent directors on boards are paid and incented to perform, or not.

Most independent directors on public company boards are compensated in a blend of cash and company shares. The equity component is typically restricted or deferred until the director retires from the board, thus postponing taxes and enabling the director to amass a portion of equity in the company to align his or her interests with shareholders (it is believed). The equity can be a predetermined number of restricted shares, or a set monetary amount in the form of share “units.”

The problem with paying independent directors this way is that there is little incentive for personal performance or company performance. Directors get paid the cash and equity regardless. There is little if any downside, especially when directors can ride a stock market or Fed driven increase in overall share prices.

Not surprisingly, the activists noted this lack of incentive pay.

It is hardly surprising that boards do not focus on value creation, strategic planning, or maximizing company performance, survey after survey, as much as they do on compliance. Their compensation structure does not incent them to.

Compensation incentives drive behavior, both for management and for directors.

Here is what is needed to align director pay with shareholder interests:

  1. Directors should be required to issue cheques from their personal savings accounts to purchase shares in the company. Bill Ackman of Pershing Square stated that if Canadian Pacific directors were required to cut cheques for $100,000 each, the CEO would have been fired prior to Pershing Square being involved. Mr. Ackman is right. “Skin in the game” for a director does not mean shares are given to a director in lieu of service. The motivational factor to be attuned to shareholders is greater if directors are actual investors in the company. In private equity companies, non-management directors are encouraged to “buy into” the company and invest on the same terms as other investors.
  2. For Directors’ equity to vest (the portion they did not purchase), hurdles would need to be achieved that reflect personal performance and long-term value creation of the company. Assuming you have the right directors, this sets up a situation in which Directors are forced to engage in value creation and be rewarded for doing so, similar to private equity directors. The hurdle rate provides the incentive. The vesting hurdle should be based on the underlying performance of the company, commensurate with its risk and product cycle, possibly peer based, and not simply on riding a bull market.
  3. The long-term performance metrics for value creation should also apply to senior management, and the board should lead by example. The vast majority of performance incentives are short-term, financial and quantitative. We know that the majority of company value however is now based on intangibles. Long-term leading indicators such as innovation, reputation, talent, resilience and sustainability are being completely overlooked in compensation design. You get what you pay for.

Management has proposed “passive” pay for directors and short-term pay for themselves. Boards have acquiesced.

Where the activists went wrong, above, is in proposing short-term incentives tied to stock price that applied to a sub-set of directors. However their point is excellent in that independent director compensation is flawed. The correct approach is long-term value creation and incentives that apply to all directors, and to managers, and to shareholders.

Only when this shareholder-director-manager alignment occurs will the compensation issue be solved. It makes little sense to award executives on a biased short-term basis when the effects of their actions can last for years, or to award directors on the basis of time – or, as one of my students put it, “showing up.”

Compensation consultants are using the same short-term metrics as before the financial crisis. They need to be directed by their client boards to do otherwise.

The need to establish long-term value-creation metrics, in the words of one American director, “is one of the greatest challenges in establishing long-term incentive compensation plans.”

Join me in my next blog where I will address reforms to executive compensation.


Aligning Pay to Value Creation and Performance

Compensation is a very emotional subject for executives. And it is personal, sometimes inspiring competition, greed, wrongdoing, or even feelings of self worth. The legacy of the financial crisis will not be as much the quantum of compensation, but rather ensuring that boards and shareholders are more involved, and that pay is more tied to performance and risk-taking. Regulators have stepped in to ensure that shareholders have a vote; compensation committees and consultants are independent; and that, in expected regulations to come, pay is more linked to performance and compared to the compensation of the average worker.  The intent of compensation reform should not be a compliance exercise dominated by consultants and lawyers, but rather a re-thinking by the compensation committee of linking compensation to value creation for shareholders, and listening to their concerns. This is the heart of the issue.

In my review of the evidence and work with investors, boards and compensation committees, here is a list of opportunities for linking pay to performance and shareholder value:

  1. According to a study by an advisory firm, 95% of equity vesting in the US top 250 firms are time-based rather than performance-based. If this is the case, this is a serious lapse in oversight and alignment with shareholder value by boards. Non-executive directors should receive performance-based restricted stock also.
  2. University of Delaware researchers claim there is a 17% structural annual increase in CEO compensation simply by virtue of peer groups being used that are based on size rather than value creation, coupled with CEO compensation being awarded at the 50th, 75th or 90th percentile. This structural increase occurs irrespective of performance. As long as the current system of awarding pay continues, this ratcheting will continue.
  3. Increased disclosure of compensation has resulted in compensation consultants devising multiple vehicles, methodologies and time periods that are complex for investors to understand. There is a case to be made for the simplification of key value drivers associated with shareholder value, coupled with high wealth maximization for executives. Private equity firms do this very well.
  4. An independent advisor to a compensation committee should be one who has not done, nor is doing, nor seeks to do in the future, any non-committee related work for management. This restriction should apply to the firm as well as the person. If an advisor’s colleague has a relationship with management, then he or she does as well.
  5. There are examples of equity vesting when ethical transgressions have occurred. This should not be the case. Malus clauses should be used rather than clawbacks. The compensation committee or an independent advisor who has no relationship to management should draft the clause and the conditions. A clause properly drafted will be adverse to the interests of management.
  6. The periods covering pay and performance should be aligned and simplified. Right now there is overlap among intended, earned and realized compensation. This causes confusion in assessing compensation. Companies should do this on their own, and if they are incapable or refuse, regulators should clarify.
  7. Research studies suggest bonuses are not based on stretch goals in many companies, but are forms of disguised salaries. Bonuses should be discretionary and awarded by the committee over time as performance effects are realized and risk tails assessed.
  8. Despite the high say-on-pay approval rate, the controversy over executive compensation is not a blanket “CEOs are overpaid,” but is based primarily on two factors: examples of pay for non-performance, and the internal pay inequity (both officers and the average worker). Boards should take a look at these two issues specifically.
  9. Researchers have found no causal relationship between stock ownership by executives and firm performance. This should be kept in mind for target ownership plans. Large equity positions could promote entrenchment, asset misuse, and accounting and grant manipulation.
  10. Compensation committees need to make greater progress on adjusting compensation for risk, including incorporating risk into performance metrics and allowing equity to vest after risk has been assessed. There is much progress to be made here and regulations are emphasizing this.
  11. Greater progress needs to be made by boards on CEO succession planning, which affects compensation and firm performance. Survey data according to Stanford researchers have found that the board spends only two hours a year discussing CEO succession, and that 39% of boards do not have an internal successor. Outside successors cost more and there is considerable evidence they perform worse than internal successors.
  12. Proxy advisory firms should not be overly influential as they are now. Weak governance systems are associated with excessive compensation, research suggests. However, in considering recommendations of proxy advisory firms, they neither assess governance quality nor predict shareholder performance, the research also suggests. Compensation committees and boards should not necessarily amend practices to suit proxy advisory firms if their reliability cannot be established.

Conclusion: The compensation landscape for 2012 and 2013 will include all of the above touchpoints. They will require most importantly compensation committees with courage and expertise, particularly if there are systemic problems or questionable linkages to performance and value creation for shareholders.

Should Barclays’ Former CEO receive £17M in Compensation After the Libor Rate-Rigging Scandal?

Compensation drives behavior. As reported in The Telegraph, the Barclays’ board of directors intends to “ask” former CEO Bob Diamond to “cut” part of his £17M pay package in the aftermath of Diamond’s role in artificially suppressing the rate at which banks lend money to each other (otherwise known as the London Interbank Offered Rate, or “Libor”). There is an ensuing parliamentary inquiry into conspiracy by other banks to rig the Libor rate. Sky News reports, in “Lawyers In Barclays Bonus Battle,” that “investors have been warned that the bank faces a battle to fully withhold bonuses owed to Bob Diamond and Jerry del Missier, two top executives who quit the bank last week.”

There should be no “battle” and no need for the board to “ask” the CEO to relinquish compensation, given what happened, if the board is doing its job. The compensation (cash and stock) should not have been awarded or vested to Bob Diamond in the first place, if the Barclays’ board (and other bank boards) is complying with the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision’s guidance.

Boards have wide leverage to align ethical conduct and internal controls with executive compensation far more aggressively than they appear to be.

There are two main tools: “clawbacks” and “malus.” Clawbacks, mandated by Dodd-Frank in the US, are more popular, but are inferior to malus. Clawbacks means the cash and equity vests to the executive, and depending on risk and performance factors, the compensation committee has an uphill battle to recover (or ‘claw back’) the compensation it already awarded to the executive. The executive no doubt will contest such efforts.

In contrast, “malus,” which is recommended by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (“Basel”) (see the May 2011 report here at pages 37-39), means that the awarding of cash and vesting of stock in the hands of the executive does not occur until and unless the compensation committee says it does. This type of discretion is exactly what management does not want, which is discretion in the compensation committee’s hands. Basel however maintains that malus clauses are more feasible to implement or enforce than are clawbacks. And they are right. Basically, with clawbacks (e.g., Barclays), the board has to pursue the executive for compensation already paid, whereas malus means the board has discretion to make the award in the first place. The board can wait to see if there are any “hidden” risks (e.g., Barclays’ Libor scandal, JP Morgan’s derivative loss) or performance effects that have yet to be fully realized.

Barclays is reported to have a clawback provision, as to many of the major banks, but it is unclear whether banks also have malus clauses. If not, they should.

The clawback and malus clauses should not be drafted by an internal or external legal or compensation firm or person who serves, or has or intends to serve, management. (Otherwise there is no independence and the clause will have a low bar and be management friendly.) The malus and clawback provisions should be drafted by an independent, expert service provider retained by and accountable to the board.

Basel offers guidance on provisions that leading banks have used within malus clauses, including: (i) breach of the code of conduct (this occurred with SNC Lavalin’s former CEO) and other internal rules; (ii) compliance with risk protocols and a qualitative assessment of risk by the compensation committee; and (iii) a violation of internal rules or external regulations.

If the board doesn’t have a proper clawback and malus clause, there will be no shared understanding and alignment of behavior with compensation.

In short, if the board wants an executive to focus on ethics and commit the resources necessary to have proper internal controls and prevent management override, tie his or her compensation to these outcomes – before the fact, and retain discretion at all times. Doing this – which executives will resist – will focus executives’ minds to do what is right as their money is on the line. This is exactly what regulators want in the aftermath of the financial crisis. And clawbacks and malus clauses for banks will likely migrate to non-banks as all companies will be expected to have risk-adjusted compensation in the future.


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