United States: Is Pay For Performance A Mirage?

Last Updated: September 25 2019
Article by Cydney Posner

Yes, it can be, according to the Executive Director of the Council of Institutional Investors, in announcing CII's new policy on executive comp. Among other ideas, the new policy calls for plans with less complexity (who can't get behind that?), longer performance periods for incentive pay, hold-beyond-departure requirements for shares held by executives, more discretion to invoke clawbacks, rank-and-file pay as a valid reference marker for executive pay, heightened scrutiny of pay-for-performance plans and perhaps greater reliance on—of all things—fixed pay. It's back to the future for compensation!

Simplified and tailored plans. CII recommends that comp plans and practices be tailored for each company's circumstances and that they be comprehensible: compensation practices that comp committees "would find difficult to explain to investors in reasonable detail are prime candidates for simplification or elimination." In addition, performance periods for long-term compensation should be long term—at least five years, not the typical three-year time horizon for restricted stock.

Reference points and peers. To address the widening gap in compensation between workers and executives, CII recommends that the Comp Committee take into consideration employee compensation throughout the company as a reference point for setting executive pay, consistent with the company's strategic objectives. In addition, CII cautions against overreliance on benchmarking to peer practices, which can lead to escalating executive comp. Understanding what peers are doing is one thing, but copying their pay practices is quite another, especially if performance of those peers is markedly different. CII also warns comp committees to "guard against opportunistic peer group selection. Compensation committees should disclose to investors the basis for the particular peers selected, and should aim for consistency over time with the peer companies they select. If companies use multiple peer groups, the reasons for such an approach should be made clear to investors."

Elements of comp. With regard to elements of comp, the message again is simplification. While most U.S. companies pay programs consist of three elements—salary, annual bonus and a long-term incentive—it may make sense in some cases to focus only on salary and a single long-term incentive plan, reserving short-term incentives for special circumstances such as turnarounds.

Time-based restricted stock. CII seems to have a soft spot for time-based restricted stock with extended vesting periods (we're talking here about beginning to vest after five years and fully vesting over 10 (including post-employment). CII believes that this type of award provides

"an appropriate balance of risk and reward, while providing particularly strong alignment between shareholders and executives. Extended vesting periods reduce attention to short-term distractions and outcomes. As full-value awards, restricted stock ensures that executives feel positive and negative long-term performance equally, just as shareholders do. Restricted stock is more comprehensible and easier to value than performance-based equity, providing clarity not only to award recipients, but also to compensation committee members and shareholders trying to evaluate appropriateness and rigor of pay plans."

Performance-based pay. CII's sharpest dagger seems to be out for performance-based comp, which has long been the sine qua non of executive compensation to many comp consultants and other comp professionals. According to ISS, "equity-based compensation became increasingly performance-based in the past decade. As a percentage of total equity compensation, performance-based equity almost doubled between 2009 and 2018. Cash performance-based compensation has remained relatively unchanged. Overall, cash and equity performance-based compensation now make up approximately 58 percent of total pay, compared to 34 percent in 2019." CII cautions that comp committees need to "apply rigorous oversight and care" to this type of compensation. Although cash incentive plans or performance stock units may be appropriate to incentivize "near-term outcomes that generate progress toward the achievement of longer-term performance," performance-based plans can be problematic for a number of reasons: they can be too complex and confusing, difficult to value, "more vulnerable to obfuscation" and often based on non-GAAP "adjusted" measures that are not reconciled to GAAP. What's more, CII believes that performance-based plans are

"susceptible to manipulation. Executives may use their influence and information advantage to advocate for the selection of metrics and targets that will deliver substantial rewards even without superior performance (e.g., target awards earned for median performance versus peers). Except in extraordinary situations, the compensation committee should not 'lower the bar' by changing performance targets in the middle of performance cycles. If the committee decides that changes in performance targets are warranted in the middle of a performance cycle, it should disclose the reasons for the change and details of the initial targets and adjusted targets."

In CII's view, comp committees need to ensure that these plans are not so complex that they cannot be

"well understood by both participants and shareholders, that the underlying performance metrics support the company's business strategy, and that potential payouts are aligned with the performance levels that will generate them. In addition, the proxy statement should clearly explain such plans, including their purpose in context of the business strategy and how the award and performance targets, and the resulting payouts, are determined. Finally, the committee should consider whether long-vesting restricted shares or share units would better achieve the company's long-term compensation and performance objectives, versus routinely awarding a majority of executives' pay in the form of performance shares."

SideBar

As discussed in this article in the WSJ, executive compensation has been "increasingly linked to performance," but investors have recently been asking whether the bar for performance targets is set too low to be effective. Has the prevalence of performance metrics had the effect (whether or not intended) of lifting executive compensation? According to the article, based on ISS data, for about two-thirds of CEOs of companies in the S&P 500, overall pay "over the past three years proved higher than initial targets....That is typically because performance triggers raised the number of shares CEOs received, or stock gains lifted the value of the original grant. On average, compensation was 16% higher than the target." In addition, for 2016, about half of the CEOs of the S&P 500 received cash incentives above the performance target payout levels, averaging 46% higher, while only 150 of these companies were paid bonuses below target.

And sometimes, the WSJ contends, pay may be exceeding performance targets because those targets are set at levels that are, shall we say, not exactly challenging. According to the head of analytics at ISS, in some cases, "'the company is setting goals they think the CEO is going to clear....It's a tip-off to investors.'" The article reports that, based on a 2016 analysis, ISS concluded that about 186 of the Fortune 500 expected that the equity awards granted to their CEOs would pay out above target, 122 at target and 150 below target. The head of corporate governance for a major institutional investor expressed his concern that, sometimes, the bar is set "too low, allowing CEOs to earn 'premium payouts in the absence of compelling performance relative to the market.''' In selecting metrics and setting targets, comp committees "must juggle a range of factors," taking into account the preferences of investors and proxy advisers, as well as the recommendations of consultants.'' However, he said, "'[i]t has to be the right measure and the right achievement level."' (See this PubCo post.)

Fixed pay. And speaking of simplicity, if CII had its way, fixed pay would be making a comeback. CII's new policy characterizes fixed pay as

"a legitimate element of senior executive compensation. Compensation committees should carefully consider and determine the right risk balance for the particular company and executive. It can be appropriate to emphasize fixed pay (which essentially has no risk for the employee) as a significant pay element, particularly where it makes sense to disincentivize 'bet the company' risk taking and promote stability. Fixed pay also has the advantage of being easy to understand and value, for the company, the executive and shareholders. That said, compensation committees should set pay considering risk-adjusted value, and so, to the extent that fixed pay is a relatively large element, compensation committees need to moderate pay levels in comparison with what would be awarded with contingent, variable pay."

SideBar

The global economic crisis of 2008 led many to question whether large bonuses and stock options were motivations behind the overly risky behavior and short-term strategies that many argue had triggered that crisis. But the answer that most often resulted was to structure the compensation "differently so that the variable component motivates the right behaviors." However, in a 2016 essay in the Harvard Business Review, two academics made a case for fixed pay, contending that performance-based pay for CEOs makes absolutely no sense: research on incentives and motivation suggests that the nature of a CEO's work is unsuited to performance-based pay. Moreover, "performance-based pay can actually have dangerous outcomes for companies that implement it." According to the academics, research has shown that, while performance-based pay works well for routine tasks, the types of work performed by CEOs are typically not routine; performance-related incentives, the authors argue, are actually "detrimental when the [task] is not standard and requires creativity." Where innovative, non-standard solutions were needed or learning was required, research "results showed that a large percentage of variable pay hurt performance." Why not, they propose, pay top executives a fixed salary only? (See this PubCo post.)

Similarly, as discussed in this PubCo post, a New Yorker columnist concurs with the contention that performance pay does not really work for CEOs because the types of tasks that a CEO performs, such as deep analysis or creative problem solving, are typically not susceptible to performance incentives: "paying someone ten million dollars isn't going to make that person more creative or smarter.'" In addition, the argument goes, performance is often tied to goals that CEOs don't really control, like stock price (see this PubCo post and this news brief).

Stock ownership guidelines. CII also encourages companies to maintain stock ownership guidelines that apply for at least one year post termination; executives "not in compliance should be barred from liquidating stock-based awards (beyond tax obligations) until satisfaction of the guideline." For some companies it may even be appropriate to apply "a hold-to-departure requirement or hold-beyond-departure requirement for all stock-based awards held by the highest-level executives is an appropriate and workable commitment to long-termism. Other boards may consider such restrictions unnecessary to the extent that awards include extended vesting periods."

Clawbacks. Finally, CII advocates that boards have more discretion to invoke clawback policies. According to CII, clawbacks should apply, not only in the event of acts or omissions resulting in fraud or financial restatement, but also in the context of "some other cause the board believes warrants recovery, which may include personal misconduct or ethical lapses that cause, or could cause, material reputational harm to the company and its shareholders. Companies should disclose such policies and decisions to invoke their application."

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