September 23, 2008

Draft House Version of Bailout Bill: Includes “Say on Pay” and Shareholder Access

The latest version of the House “bailout” legislation includes provisions for a “say on pay” vote, limits on severance, clawbacks and shareholder access to the proxy for those companies involved in the bailout. See Section 9 on pages 11-13. The Senate version of a bailout bill contains the executive compensation provisions (see Section 17 on pages 30-31), but not the shareholder access one.

Bear in mind that both of these are just drafts and that they likely are just the Democratic versions of a bill. Media reports indicate that the bailout plans changes from hour to hour. In fact, I can’t even be sure I have linked to the latest drafts…

The World is Changing: Why Can’t CEO Pay?

With the very real possibility of executive compensation constraints being part of the Congressional bailout legislation, it seems like a good time to examine why executive compensation practices haven’t changed – even though 99% of this country believes they should. With Wall Street and our financial markets undergoing a complete transformation and the regulatory framework certain to be reformed in ways we never imagined, why does CEO pay remain “untouchable” for many boards and their advisors?

Here are a few of my thoughts:

1. Lots of Lip Service – Personally, I am tired of having conversations with colleagues who tell me that compensation committee meetings really have changed. I believe that. The problem is it’s just the committee processes that have changed – to pass judicial muster after Disney – but the committee’s actions remain the same. When I have these conversations, it’s telling how perfunctory committee meetings used to be!

2. When There is Responsible Change, It’s Driven by the CEO – Most often when I talk to someone who regularly advises boards, I hear that the few companies that really make responsible changes are the ones where the CEO speaks up and voluntarily asks for the change. Sadly, boards and compensation committees are not the ones driving responsible change.

3. Debunking “Everyone Else is Doing It” – How often has this justification lead us down the garden path? Just because everyone is using peer group benchmarking instead of alternative benchmarking – like internal pay equity – doesn’t make it right. In fact, some plaintiff lawyers may argue that it’s now widely known that 15 years of broken peer group benchmarking has made that methodology unreliable – and that boards that continue to heavily rely on that broken database are not fulfilling their fiduciary duty to be reasonably informed. (And remember that today’s excessive CEO pay packages are a relatively new phenomenon, only about 15 years old as I’ve explained before).

4. You Won’t Lose Your CEO If You Trim $10 Million – Probably the most frequent justification to maintain the status quo is that the CEO will walk if the pay package is cut from $20 million to $10 million. I find this an empty argument in most cases (and for the many really hurting in today’s economy, even the $10 million produces anger). Sure, the grass is always greener – but the reality is the grass is brown all over right now.

I realize that having a pay-cutting conversation is hard – but there are baby steps that can be taken to bring executive compensation back in line. Start with implementing a clawback provision with teeth, eliminate severance arrangements that have no purpose and require executives to hold-til-retirement. Use better tools to ensure a fairer process, like internal pay equity and wealth accumulation analyses.

5. Congressional Solution Not Preferred, But Perhaps Inevitable – I don’t believe Congressional intervention into pay practices is a sound idea, but the failure of boards to fix pay practices on their own has brought us to where we are today. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that Congress is now focusing on this topic – the House has held hearings on CEO pay repeatedly this year and both Presidential candidates have stated their intention to pass “say on pay” legislation next year. I believe we are at a “last chance” stage for boards to truly get their act together or else we will wind up with laws that do it for them.

What Can You Do? You can be informed and learn as much about responsible practices as possible. Our upcoming “5th Annual Executive Compensation Conference” can help you get started by providing a roadmap of practical tools and processes that you – and your board – can use to make things right. If you can’t make it to New Orleans on October 21st-22nd, you can still catch this important conference by video webcast.

If times are tight and your company doesn’t have the budget to cover the full cost of registration, send me an email and we’ll accommodate you. We are far more interested in getting CEO practices back on the right track than making money from the Conference. Note that when you register for the “5th Annual Executive Compensation Conference,” you also get access to the “Tackling Your 2009 Compensation Disclosures: The 3rd Annual Proxy Disclosure Conference” as these two practical Conferences are bundled together. The two Conferences are being held on successive dates.

Fixing the “No Short List”: The SEC Punts to Stock Exchanges

In my rush to blog before I left for a speaking engagement yesterday morning, I had missed the part of the SEC’s revised emergency order that now requires each stock exchange to post a list of the financial institutions that should be covered by the SEC’s temporary short-selling ban. Last night, the exchanges posted their lists with additional companies on them (here is the NYSE list and Nasdaq list), which are subject to further refinement.

This is probably a wise move given the snafus made by the SEC so far – but pretty embarrassing given that the SEC went through the exercise of creating a “No Short List” for financial institutions just a month ago (read some of the quotes at the end of this WSJ article). As a SEC Staff alumni, this Bloomberg article makes me cringe and I worry that the SEC will be made a scapegoat for the ongoing crisis and that Congress will fold it into another federal agency…

– Broc Romanek