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Directors in 2017 may see a new kind of resolution meant to re-assert any Dodd-Frank pay rules that get stalled or repealed this year.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:
Maintaining good standing with regulators;
Sustainability-related measures, and;
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.
As proxy advisors and shareholders continue to focus on improving the relationship between compensation and shareholder returns, and new pay for performance rules are finalized by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, it is likely that more companies will consider adapting incentives based on Total Shareholder Return (TSR) principles. Ultimately, companies need to balance shareholder value creation with executive motivation and retention when deciding whether a TSR-based incentive plan is appropriate and aligns with the company’s compensation philosophy.
If TSR is utilized in a performance-based award package, companies need to consider the following three factors: whether TSR should be measured on an absolute or relative basis, the appropriate TSR performance hurdle, and whether there will be a cap on payouts based on absolute TSR performance.
1. Absolute versus Relative TSR. Absolute TSR requires the company to set stock price targets that must be achieved to earn a payout. Establishing an absolute stock price level at the beginning of a performance period can be challenging, as a declining stock market could make goal achievement difficult to achieve, while a “buoyant” stock market could make the absolute goal relatively easy to achieve. The challenge with relative TSR is that it requires the company to select a peer group or index that is appropriate for relative TSR performance comparisons. Identifying an appropriate comparator can be particularly challenging for companies in unique markets or industries with just a few competitors.
A well-designed TSR plan might provide that when a company achieves both low absolute TSR and relative TSR, little to no payouts would be allowed (Figure 1, box C); similarly, when absolute TSR and relative TSR performance are high, payouts would be sizable (Figure 1, box B).
In cases of high absolute TSR with low relative performance (Figure 1, box A), some type of reduction in payouts might be appropriate, as the company underperformed the stock market. Similarly, in cases of low absolute TSR and high relative TSR performance (Figure 1, box D), management could be rewarded for out-performing a down stock market.
Competitive practice, however, does not often combine these two concepts. Most plans are based on relative TSR, with no adjustment for absolute performance. The few companies that set absolute stock price (or TSR) goals do not consider relative performance. A few large companies have introduced payout caps when absolute performance is negative, a concept which is discussed below.
2.TSR Performance Hurdle. If absolute TSR is utilized, a company will need to decide a minimum stock price level that must be achieved to trigger a payout (e.g., the current stock price is $15, and a trigger price of $30 is established before a payout can be earned). Determining an absolute stock price, or TSR hurdle, should stretch the executive’s efforts, but should not be demotivating. That said, the performance of the overall stock market or the stock performance of the company’s industry sector can make the $30 target in the example either impossible or easy to achieve, which may not create the intended incentive.
For relative TSR, the company must decide the minimum level of relative performance compared to a peer group or market index that begins to provide a payout. This approach allows companies to avoid the need to set a specific stock price. However, it is important to remember that a relative TSR goal may not provide the intended motivation, as the goal is not as clear cut as the absolute stock price target (and, presumably, the underlying earnings or cash flow that must be achieved to support the target stock price).
A typical relative TSR performance curve for a US-based company is illustrated in Figure 2. The threshold level is often the most debated payout level on the performance curve, although competitive market practice suggests the 25th percentile is the most common threshold performance level. By way of contrast, a UK-based company would typically start payouts at 50thpercentile relative performance.
3. TSR Caps. In order to reward both relative and absolute performance, some companies with relative TSR plans have placed a cap on payouts when absolute TSR is negative. These caps often limit payouts to 100% of target despite the company’s ability to outperform in a down market, as shareholders lost value during the performance period.The obvious issue with this approach is the lack of symmetry. Specifically, if the share price increases significantly, but relative TSR is below the threshold level, no payouts will occur. Thus, shareholders will realize a significant increase in stock value and management does not receive a payout (contrast this result with stock options, where management would realize a significant amount of “intrinsic value”). The lack of symmetry and the general belief that out-performance in a down stock market should be rewarded has likely led companies to refrain from imposing caps on payouts.This may change as shareholders and the proxy advisory firms continue to apply pressure on companies to better align pay and performance. In addition, the SEC proposed rules required under Dodd Frank in July 2015 that when finalized will require disclosure of the relationship of pay and TSR (both relative and absolute). This disclosure could impact the design of incentive plans including TSR-based plans to further align realized compensation with shareholder returns (including the use of TSR caps).
Michael Kesner is principal and Jennifer Kwech is senior manager of Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Compensation Strategies Practice.
Deloitte refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, a UK private company limited by guarantee (“DTTL”), its network of member firms, and their related entities. DTTL and each of its member firms are legally separate and independent entities. DTTL (also referred to as “Deloitte Global”) does not provide services to clients. Please see www.deloitte.com/about for a more detailed description of DTTL and its member firms.
This presentation contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this presentation, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This presentation is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. Deloitte shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person who relies on this presentation.
Corporate directors are confronted with a variety of recently proposed governance standards, while activist investor campaigns are challenging both board composition and board effectiveness by targeting individual directors. Given the high level of personal reputational risk and the associated long-term financial consequences now faced by directors, a hard look at the adequacy of company-sponsored director and officer (D&O) risk mitigation and board compensation strategies is timely.
The Bedrock of Certainty Shifts
Shifting stakeholder expectations are codified in the frequently conflicting governance standards published in recent years. Following the National Association of Corporate Director’s own 2011 Key Agreed Principles, there are now draft voting guidelines from Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis & Co.; standards from groups such as the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (regulator), CalSTRS (investor), the G20, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (influencer); and, most recently, the Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles from a group of CEOs led by JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon.
This proliferation of standards reflects differing stakeholder expectations and gives direct rise to new risks for directors. With these new risks and expectations emerge associated questions about the adequacy of current governance strategies, company-sponsored reputation-risk-mitigation packages, and director compensation.
Because the board is the legal structure administering governance, the standards that boards choose to guide their oversight have legal force. Furthermore, detailed, prescriptive standards have instrumental force.
For instance, ISS and CalSTRS are promoting highly prescriptive standards. ISS is exploring specific “warning signs” of impaired governance, including monitoring boards that have not appointed a new director in five years, where the average tenure of directors exceeds 10 or 15 years, or where more than 75 percent of directors have served 10 years or longer. CalSTRS expects two-thirds of a board to be comprised of independent directors, and defines director independence specifically as having held no managerial role in the company during the past five years, equity ownership of less than 20 percent equity, and having a commercial relationship with the company valued at no more than $120,000 per year.
The Commonsense Corporate Governance Principles released this summer was an effort to share the thoughts of the 5,000 or so public companies “responsible for one-third of all private sector employment and one-half of all business capital spending.” Certain background facts may lead some stakeholders to discount the Principles. For example, in addition to Dimon, the list of signatories was comprised mostly of executives who hold the dual company roles of chair and CEO. Also, according to the Financial Times, eyebrows have been raised by CEO performance-linked bonuses of about 24 to 27 times base pay at BlackRock and T. Rowe Price, two asset manager companies with executives who were signatories. Coincidentally, these asset manager companies were ranked among the most lenient investors with respect to the executive pay of their investee companies, according to the research firm Proxy Insight.
These standards can be deployed by checklist, and boards can be audited for compliance to the specifics of the adopted standards. But, more importantly, the very existence of these standards lends them authority through expressive force. What they express—or signal, in behavioral economic parlance—is intent, goodwill, and values. Signaling is valuable in the court of public opinion.
Personal Protection Strategies
As reported in NACD Directorshipmagazine earlier this year, activists often wage battle in the court of public opinion to garner public support when mounting an attack against a company. Emphasizing the personal risks, the Financial Times reported in August that “Corporate names are resilient: when their images get damaged, a change of management or strategy will often revive their fortunes. But personal reputations are fragile: mess with them and it can be fatal.”
Make no mistake: this risk is personal. A director’s damaged personal reputation comes with material costs. Risk Management reported in September that the opportunity costs to the average corporate director arising from public humiliation were estimated at more than $2 million.
Among the many governance standards, pay issues are the third rail of personal reputation risks. “If companies don’t use common sense to control pay outcomes, [shareholders have to question] what else is going on at the organization and the dynamic between the chief executive and the board,” an asset manager with Railpen Investments told the Financial Times recently. Clawbacks may be the most disconcerting pay issue because the tactic places directors personally between both the investment community and regulators.
Governance standards just over the horizon may give boards succor, and reputation-risk-transfer solutions may have immediate benefits. Since 2014, the American Law Institute (ALI) has been developing a framework titled, “Compliance, Enforcement, and Risk Management for Corporations, Nonprofits, and Other Organizations.” Members of the project’s advisory committee include representatives from Goldman Sachs & Co., HSBC, Google, Clorox, and Avon Products; diverse law firms offering governance advisory services; law schools; regulators including the Department of Justice; and representatives from a number of prominent courts. According to the ALI, the project is likely to hold an authority close to that accorded to judicial decisions.
The ALI work product remains a well-protected secret, but the project is expected to recommend standards and best practices on compliance, enforcement, risk management, and governance. It can be expected that the ALI standards will reflect the legal community’s newly acquired recognition of the interactions between the traditional issues of compliance, director and officer liabilities, and economics; and the newer issues of cognitive and behavioral sciences. Such governance standards will likely speak to the fact that while director and officer liability will be adjudicated in the courts of law, director and officer culpability will be adjudicated in the courts of public opinion.
Insurance Solutions Available Now
Boards that qualify for reputational insurances and their expressive force can mitigate risks in the court of public opinion. An NACDDirectorshiparticle noted earlier this year, “ . . . these reputation-based indemnification instruments, structured like a performance bond or warranty with indexed triggers, communicate the quality of governance, essentially absolving board members of damaging insinuations by activists.”
Given the increased personal reputational risks facing directors and the long-term financial consequences arising, it may be time for an omnibus revisit of the adequacy of both director compensation and company-sponsored D&O risk mitigation strategies in the context of an enhanced, board-driven approach to governance, compliance, and risk management.
Following the guidelines of the ALI’s project once they are published is a rational strategy. After all, the work product will be one that will have already been “tested” informally in the community comprising the courts of law, and will be designed to account for the reality of the courts of public opinion. And no firm today has natural immunity to reputation damage—even Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway appears to be in the ISS crosshairs. Reputational insurances which, like vaccines, boost immunity, are available to qualified boards to counter all that is certain to come at them in this upcoming proxy season. And for those who insist on both belts and suspenders, hazardous duty pay may seal the deal.
Nir Kossovsky is CEO of Steel City Re and an authority on business process risk and reputational value. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul Liebman is chief compliance officer and director of University Compliance Services at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be contacted at email@example.com.