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Proxy Season 2017: Proposals on Top Compensation Turn Social

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This spring, as usual, most pay-related resolutions in proxy statements will be from corporations seeking shareholder approval of pay packages for named executives. But not all the pay votes will implement this now-familiar “say on pay,” where shareholders look back at the past year’s compensation plan to give thumbs up or down. More shareholders will be proposing their own pay concepts for a vote this season—and many of these proposals will reflect shareholder’s growing interest in social issues.

Who Needs Dodd-Frank?

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Directors in 2017 may see a new kind of resolution meant to re-assert any Dodd-Frank pay rules that get stalled or repealed this year. As reported in detail in the January/February 2017 issue of NACD Directorship magazine, President Trump may use executive orders to delay or undo Dodd-Frank, and Congress may revive a number of bills to repeal Dodd-Frank, including the parts of the law focused on executive pay. As expected, the president on February 3 issued an executive order outlining core principles that should guide the rollback of Dodd-Frank era regulations. As a result of this potential pullback on pay rule-making, companies may see shareholder resolutions mandating what those rules would have imposed, e.g., mandates for stricter executive pay clawbacks or for pay-versus-performance and pay-ratio disclosures.

Not surprisingly, directors and shareholders have been talking face-to-face about pay in preparation for this season. The 2016–2017 NACD Public Company Governance Survey reveals some interesting trends. In 2016, 48 percent of respondents indicated that a representative of their board had held a meeting with institutional investors over the past 12 months, compared to 41 percent in 2015. The most common discussion topics at those meetings were executive pay and CEO performance metrics and goals. Another common topic was “specific shareholder proposals,” which no doubt included the range of causes noted in our recent post predicting a rise in socially-minded proxy resolutions.

For many companies, measurement of performance includes social goals. In 2016, 80 percent of respondents to the NACD survey indicated that they consider non-financial metrics when evaluating executive perfor­mance to determine executive compensation. The metrics they use include, in descending order from 37 percent to 8 percent, the following:

  • Employee engagement/morale;
  • Customer satisfaction;
  • Workplace safety;
  • Maintaining good standing with regulators;
  • Product quality;
  • Employee turnover;
  • Sustainability-related measures, and;
  • Workplace diversity.

Many of these performance metrics could be considered “social” aspects of pay.

Executive Pay Proposals at Apple, Walgreens Boots Alliance

The 2017 proxy at Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) reveals that Clean Yield Asset Management proposed that WBA issue a report linking sustainability metrics to executive pay. The proposal asks the board compensation committee to prepare a report “assessing the feasibility of integrating sustainability metrics into the performance measures of senior executives,” and defines sustainability as “how environmental and social considerations, and related financial impacts, are integrated into corporate strategy over the long term.” The company recommends a vote against this proposal, highlighting its achievements in the field of sustainability, and concluding that preparing this report would not be a productive use of company resources.

On another note, Apple’s 2017 proxy statement contains two shareholder resolutions on pay—one focusing on increasing the requirements for stock ownership, and one that takes a more social turn. In proposal 8, shareholder activist Jing Zhao brings into the current season an economic concern voiced by a significant number of shareholders across several companies in 2016, when the 250 largest companies saw 38 shareholder-sponsored proposals on pay. While the subjects of these proposals varied, most of the 2016 proposals alluded, in one way or the other, to compensation practice reform.

Zhao’s current resolution proposes the following: “Resolved: Shareholders recommend that Apple Inc. engage multiple outside independent experts or resources from the general public to reform its executive compensation principles and practices.”

In summary, Zhao’s proposal takes aim at the identical nature of the senior executive pay below the CEO, and questions the need of a compensation consultant given such conformity. But the supporting details reveal that the proposal is not really about how many advisors Apple engages. Rather, it is about income inequality. Zhao’s commentary goes on to address the larger picture of societal well-being. He quotes Thomas Piketty, arguing that income inequality “has contributed to the nation’s financial instability,” and tracing this inequality to “the emergence of extremely high remunerations at the summit of the wage hierarchy.” (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 297-298, reviewed here in NACD Directorship).

The response from Apple management addresses the proposal itself rather than the surrounding complaint. Apple’s executive officers “are expected to operate as a high-performing team; and we believe that generally awarding the same base salary, annual cash incentive, and long-term equity awards to each of our executive officers, other than the CEO, successfully supports this goal.”

The Sleeper Issue: Director Pay

The sleeper issue this year may be director pay. The 2015-2016 Director Compensation Report, authored by Pearl Meyer and published by NACD, showed only a modest rise in director pay, and predicted the same for 2017. Nonetheless, director pay is becoming a hot issue for shareholders.

Consider the new guidelines from the leading proxy advisory firm, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), which serves some 60 percent of the proxy advisory market. Proxy voting guidelines of ISS and Glass, Lewis & Co. contain updates to discourage perceived director overboarding—and compensation does not follow far behind. It is notable that ISS amended its proxy voting guidelines, effective February 1, 2017, to include director pay. The ISS voting changes also include changes to ISS policies on equity-based pay and other incentives, as well as amendments to cash and equity plans, such as mandatory shareholder approval for tax deductibility. But the most unexpected development was ISS’ support for “shareholder ratification of director pay programs and equity plans for non-employee directors.”

ISS says that if the equity plan is on the ballot under which non-employee director grants are made, ISS policy would assess the following qualitative factors:

  • The relative magnitude of director compensation as compared to similar companies;
  • The presence of problematic pay practices relating to director compensation;
  • Director stock ownership guidelines and holding requirements;
  • Equity award vesting schedule;
  • The mix of cash and equity-based compensation;
  • Meaningful limits on director compensation;
  • The availability of retirement benefits or perquisites, and;
  • The quality of disclosure surrounding director compensation.

These values are not new. NACD went on record supporting such concepts in our Report of the NACD Blue Ribbon Commission on Director Compensation, issued in 1995. Every year since then we have issued an annual survey on director compensation with Pearl Meyer (cited above), reinforcing these key points.

In explaining the rationale for its policy update, ISS notes that there have been several recent lawsuits regarding excessive non-employee director (NED) compensation. For a summary of these lawsuits, see the Pearl Meyer/NACD director compensation report cited above.

ISS notes activity behind the scenes re director pay. According to the proxy vote advisor, “some companies have put forth advisory proposals seeking shareholder ratification of their NED pay programs,” and further, “ISS evaluated several director pay proposals during the 2016 proxy season, and we expect to see more submitted to a shareholder vote.”

Say on Pay for Directors?

Given the new interest in director pay, might it become subject to “say on pay” in the U.S.? Such a mandate has already begun overseas. Since 2013, Switzerland has had an “Ordinance against Excessive Compensation with Respect to Listed Companies.” The law mandates annual shareholder votes on the total pay awarded in any form by the company to its directors and, in a separate vote, to its senior executives. The pay period can be retrospective (last year) or prospective (next year). So far, after an initial wildensprung of rebellion against some boards, approval ratings have been very high. The 2017 proxy season may continue this trend—or contain surprises. Given volatility in the global economy, and in shareholder sentiment, it is wise to avoid complacency.

To prepare for proxy season, directors can benefit by visiting the National Association of Corporate Directors’ (NACD) various resource centers, including centers on the compensation committee and on preparation for proxy season.

Proxy Season 2017: More Pressure on Social Issues, Focus on Value

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This is the first in a series of blogs that will help your board prepare for Proxy Season 2017.

Proxy Season 2017 will give voice to the usual variety of governance issues we cover in our resource center on preparation for proxy season, but this year shareholder resolutions are highly likely to take a turn towards social issues.

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With an expected regulatory downshift under the incoming Trump Administration, standard-setting for business conduct may move from the government to the corporate sector, with shareholders and socially conscious directors driving the trend in myriad areas, from industry-specific concerns such as animal welfare to broader issues such as climate change. To be sure, we will continue to see proxy resolutions in the dozen general categories that have become hallmarks for activists, but the rise in attention to social issues by activists seems inevitable (See Figure 1).

Dialogue

Corporate leaders and major shareholders alike are recognizing the role that social issues can  play in corporate value. In 2016, corporate leaders and prominent investors issued “Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance,” a collaborative document containing a key message: “Our future depends on…companies being managed effectively for long-term prosperity, which is why the governance of American companies is so important to every American.” Among their recommendations was the suggestion that boards pay attention to “material corporate responsibility matters” and “shareholder proposals and key shareholder concerns.”

As revealed in the NACD Resource Center on Board-Shareholder Engagement, proxy resolutions can play a role in raising board awareness of key issues. Although shareholder resolutions rarely win by a majority, and even then are only “precatory” (non-mandatory), they do raise boards’ awareness of issues and can spark change over time. Many of today’s governance practices began as failing proxy resolutions but ended up as majority practices, with or without proxy votes.

Take for example proxy bylaw amendments, which have only been fair game for proxy votes since spring 2012 (thanks to a new rule that removed director nominations from the list of topics disallowed for shareholder resolutions). That season saw only three proxy access resolutions at the largest 250 companies, and only one got a majority vote. Fast forward to spring 2016 when 28 companies had such votes, and nearly half succeeded in getting a majority vote. By December 2016, proxy access had been adopted by a majority of Fortune 500 companies, as Sidley Austin reports. Those early proxy access resolutions lost their early battles, but in the end, they won the larger war. The same could happen over time to social resolutions over the next four years.

Directors Want More Dialogue on Social Issues

Interestingly, directors seem to be intuiting that they will need to step up on social issues this year. The 2016-2017 NACD Public Company Governance Survey, which features responses from 631 directors surveyed in 2016, reveals a significant finding in this regard.  When asked to judge the ideal amount of time to be spent on various boardroom topics, directors ranked five topics as highest in terms of needing more discussion time:

  • director education;
  • executive leadership;
  • cybersecurity;
  • director succession; and
  • corporate social responsibility.

One in three respondents said they would like more time devoted to discussing the “social responsibility” topic. For all issues other than these five, fewer than a third of respondents said that the topics merited more board attention. While this is a relatively new question, NACD has asked similar questions in the past, and this is the first time our respondents have ever ranked social issues so highly as a “need to know” topic. 

A Gravitational Pull to Social Issues With a Strategic Slant

So what lies ahead for the next proxy season in the social domain? Aristotle is attributed with coining the phrase  “nature abhors a vacuum,” a theorem in physics aptly applied to the likely vacuum in new corporate rule-making in 2017. USA-first trade rules aside, we believe that shareholder activists may try to fill the break in Dodd-Frank rule making with their own social agendas.

As we go to press, attorney Scott Pruitt is slated to head his institutional nemesis, the Environmental Protection Agency, while Governor Rick Perry, former leader of oil-rich Texas, is in line to direct the Department of Energy. Neither man is likely to crack down on carbon-based fuels, so if shareholders want carbon reduction, they will need to redouble their own efforts—and indeed that seems to be the plan.

According to the environmental group Ceres, quoted in an overview by Alliance Advisors, LLC, U.S. public companies will face some 200 resolutions on climate change in 2017, up from a total 174 such resolutions during 2016. This prediction may be conservative. According to Proxy Monitor, in 2016 the 250 largest companies alone saw 58 environmental proposals—meaning that nearly one out of every four large companies faced one.

In other developments, As You Sow, a community of socially engaged investors, has already announced 46 of its own proxy resolutions, including three on executive pay. All the rest are on social issues, including climate change (11), coal (10), consumer packaging (5), and smaller numbers of resolutions in a variety of other social issues, including antibiotics and factory farms, genetically modified organisms, greenhouse gas, hydraulic fracturing, methane, nanomaterials, and pharmaceutical waste. The gist of many of these resolutions is to ask for more disclosure, including more information on the impact of current trends on the company’s strategy and reputation. For example, the “climate change” resolution in the Exxon Mobile proxy statement asks Exxon to issue a report “summarizing strategic options or scenarios for aligning its business operations with a low carbon economy.”

Similarly, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility has already announced the filing of five shareholder resolutions for the 2017 proxy of its longtime target Tyson Foods on a variety of issues, including one on the strategic implications of plant-based eating. Sponsored by Green Century Capital Management, the resolution seeks to learn what steps the company will take to address “risks to the business” from the “increased prevalence of plant-based eating.”

In the same vein, at Post Holdings, which holds its shareholder meeting January 28, a shareholder resolution from Calvert Investment Management asks for disclosure of “major potential risks and impacts, including those regarding brand reputation, customer relations, infrastructure and equipment, animal well-being, and regulatory compliance.” Note that animal welfare is only one factor here; Calvert is making a business case for the social change.

Visit our Preparation for Proxy Season Board Resource Center for more publications to equip your board for the season ahead. 

Total Board Compensation Up Among Early Proxy Filers

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Director compensation continues to gain attention in the corporate governance community. Once one of the most mundane topics of corporate compensation, director pay is becoming the topic du jour as governance experts and current board members alike debate the value of a strong, engaged board of directors, as evidenced by the fact that ISS now assesses director compensation levels on a relative basis using QuickScore, its analysis and rating system for corporate governance practices. All of this prompts the question: What is a quality board of directors really worth?

Total board cost (defined here as the sum of cash, equity, pension value changes, and all other compensation amounts as reported in the director compensation table of a company’s latest proxy statement) has emerged as another way for directors and other stakeholders to evaluate director compensation and to demonstrate the value of boards to shareholders.

Steven Hall and Partners studied the early proxy filings of 100 U.S.-based companies with revenues in excess of $1 billion. The study examined the aggregate amounts of cash, equity, and other compensation paid to directors, as disclosed in proxy tables. Among this year’s early proxy filers, the median increase of total board fees was 7 percent in 2014, bringing the median total cost to $2 million. The movement in pay was driven by a number of factors, including a median increase of 6 percent in equity awards granted, a 2 percent rise in the cash compensation, and an increase in the number of paid directors.

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In addition, we found at median:

  • Total cash payments to directors increased 2 percent to $777,000
  • Total equity compensation rose 6 percent to $1.1 million
  • Total board fees grew 7 percent to $2.0 million
  • Boards were comprised of nine paid directors, up from eight in 2013
  • Average cost per director increased 5 percent, to $230,000

We also compared total board cost to revenue, net income, and market capitalization amounts to show the minimal financial impact of director fees. At median, total board cost equals 0.05 percent of revenue, 0.66 percent of net income and 0.03 percent of market capitalization. These figures reinforce the notion that the board continues to represent one of the wisest investments of capital, particularly in light of the experience and specific expertise that directors bring to the companies they serve.

Average Cost per Director

Among the companies studied, average cost per director ranged from $78,617 to $410,678 in 2014. Among the companies reviewed, the median increase over 2013 pay levels was 5 percent. The median average cost per director equaled $229,899 in 2014.

Pay Mix

According to the study, the mix of pay delivered to directors remained virtually unchanged in 2014. Equity awards accounted for 55 percent of total board cost, up from 54 percent in 2013. Cash compensation decreased as a percent of total board cost to 42 percent, from 44 percent in 2013. Change in pension values increased to 1 percent of total board cost, from 0 percent in 2013, and all other compensation remained equal to 2 percent of total board cost. The increase in pension values is attributable to changes in actuarial assumptions used to value these programs, rather than a shift in approach; pension programs for directors are no longer a part of most pay programs.

Financial Performance

Among the 100 companies studied:

  • Revenues ranged from $1 billion to $183 billion
    • Median equals $2.9 billion
    • Median one-year revenue growth equaled 7 percent
    • Net income ranged from negative $53 million to $40 billion
    • Median equals $269 million
    • Median one-year net income growth equaled 11 percent
    • One-year total shareholder return grew 10 percent

Action Items for Director Consideration

The recent focus on director pay by shareholders and members of the corporate governance community has prompted a number of important changes in the way directors consider and implement director pay programs. First, consider director pay issues on an annual, rather than a biennial or triennial basis. Staying abreast of market movements with small annual adjustments is generally preferable to larger, sporadic jumps in pay. While the ways of delivering pay (cash and equity retainers, meeting fees, and additional retainers for committee service) may vary depending upon the company, directors should focus on total pay per director as well as the total cost of the board. In addition, companies should remain mindful of how pay compares to that of their direct competitors as well as companies in their peer group, as defined by proxy advisory services like ISS.

As it comes time for your company to conduct its annual review of director compensation, we recommend that you consider the following questions:

  • Is your director compensation program fair and competitive?
  • Does the program allow you to attract and retain high quality director candidates?
  • Is the program justifiable to shareholders?
  • Are modifications to your director compensation program appropriate and reflective of projected market increases and company growth?
  • How does your director pay mix compare to the pay mix at companies of similar size and/or industry?
  • Is your program’s structure aligned with the current best practice of delivering at least half of total value to directors in the form of equity? If your program’s equity awards are denominated in shares, does your company account for the total potential volatility in grant value?
  • To what degree does your company consider total board cost when making modifications to your director compensation program?

For a more detailed analysis on director compensation, look for Steven Hall & Partners’ annual Director Compensation Study due out later this year.