Pay Ratios: A Question of When, Not If
Moving into May and the peak of annual meeting season, executive compensation is one of the top stories in the business media. To date, eight companies have failed their annual say-on-pay votes. With the bulk of annual shareholder meetings in the coming months, this number is expected to increase. This week, an editorial in the New York Times criticized the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for failing to issue rules on another area of executive compensation—pay ratios—claiming the “main problem seems to be foot-dragging in the face of objections from corporate lobbyists.”
The article correctly identifies several factors. The SEC did delay issuing final rules on the CEO pay ratio until the second half of 2012, effectively postponing corporate disclosure of the ratio of chief executive pay to the company’s median salary until the 2013 proxy season. Also, a substantial number of comment letters have already been submitted to the SEC on matters regarding executive compensation disclosures, including some for which there are no rules pending. Lastly, the rules mandated for pay ratios in Dodd-Frank are unlike most other provisions in the legislation, in that Congress did not allow for much flexibility in crafting the final rules.
However, the NYT editorial did not mention several factors that have hindered progress for the SEC. According to the May 2012 Dodd-Frank Progress Report from Davis Polk, of the SEC’s 95 required rulemakings, the agency has missed the deadline for 56. When final rules are actually released, they are often met with criticism and lawsuits. Last summer the U.S. District Court of Appeals overturned the SEC’s proxy access rule on the basis that the agency had not conducted a thorough cost-benefit analysis. The SEC subsequently introduced a more robust economic analysis in its rulemaking process, leading to a missed deadline for releasing a final rule regarding the conflict minerals provision—which will require companies to track and disclose their use of minerals potentially sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
With the rigid mandates on the pay-ratio disclosure, the SEC is facing difficulties with one area not clearly defined: computing median compensation. While Dodd-Frank was explicit in the calculation of the ratio, it was not clear in how the median total compensation would be measured. This measurement leads to several questions: Does the compensation of every employee at an organization need to be computed? Should part-time employees be included in the calculation? Would international employees be included? If so, what foreign exchange rate would be used? Taking these questions into consideration, last August the AFL-CIO proposed the use of statistical sampling to calculate the median compensation, an option the SEC is taking seriously.
The argument is no longer whether pay ratio disclosures will have the intended effect of changing executive compensation. Instead, it is when and how these rules will be issued.