January 9, 2009

Should Congress Limit Executive Pay?

In this past Sunday’s NY Times, an economist – Robert Frank – wrote an essay about whether Congress should limit executive pay. Although Frank makes some accurate observations, the piece is typical of most written by academics and others who are not familiar with the processes by which executive pay is set (Frank’s lack of knowledge is evident when he states that “salaries” drive job choices – not true since salaries are just a nominal part of CEO pay packages, at least at larger companies). Frank cites the two primary reasons for heightened pay over the past few decades is that market caps for companies have grown and that executives are more likely to change jobs these days.

Although I agree that those two factors have contributed to escalating pay, they are not the major factors. As I wrote several years ago in my “Open Letter to All Journalists,” you need to understand what is happening in the boardroom – particularly compensation committee meetings – to really understand why executive pay has risen. It’s these board processes (eg. peer group benchmarking; severance/COC arrangements because “everyone else is doing it”; annual option mega-grants) that continue to be broken and have inadvertently led to excessive pay. Fixing these processes is critical, including the very difficult task of unwinding past arrangements.

I continue to contend that Congress shouldn’t force boards to fix their processes – boards should be doing that themselves. But if boards don’t soon – and they sure have been slow to figure out their role in fixing the problems of executive pay – it seems inevitable that Congress will act.

And unfortunately, I believe any new Congressional action won’t solve our pay problems because boards (with the help – and even prodding – of errant advisors who forget their represent the company, not the top managers) always seem to find a way around artifical limits, thereby “creating” unintended consequences.

Boards must be accountable and need to take a leadership role here. I remain stunned as most boards still don’t seem to have figured this all out yet…as I’ve blogged before, the few companies taking responsible pay actions appear to have the CEO leading the charge rather than the directors.

“Say-on-Pay” in Action: 38% Vote “No” at Jackson-Hewitt’s Annual Meeting

To get a window on what may happen if say-on-pay legislation is enacted in the US, look no further to the results from the recent annual shareholder meeting for Jackson-Hewitt Tax Services. As noted in the company’s Form 10-Q filed last month, 37.5% of the votes cast were voted against the company’s pay package (see Proposal III) – the highest level of opposition so far for an advisory vote in the U.S. market. This is only the fifth company in the US to allow say-on-pay on the ballot – once more companies allow it, I imagine the levels of opposition will grow given the environment out there today.

Congrats to Dave for getting quoted in this front-page article recently in the Washington Post. The article is entitled “Executive Pay Limits May Prove Toothless.” And more importantly, the article mentions our new treatise! I find it hard to believe, but someone told me they heard Alex Bennett review the treatise during his Sirius radio show…

“Say on Pay” and Preliminary Proxy Statements

Brink Dickerson of Troutman Sanders reports that a preliminary filing of a proxy statement under Rule 14a-6(a) is required in connection with management say-on-pay proposals. While Rule 14a-6(a)(4) eliminates the filing requirement for the “approval or ratification of a [compensation] plan…or amendment to such plan,” Interpretation N.10 from the Manual of Publicly Available Telephone Interpretations makes it clear that this is a narrow exclusion and does not apply to after-the-fact approval of specific compensation (note that this set of interps may be updated any day now, per statements of Corp Fin Staff). In addition, the Corp Fin Staff confirmed for one of Brink’s colleagues that a management say-on-pay proposal would not fall within the Rule 14a-6(a)(4) exception.

A number of the companies with management say-on-pay proposals (egs. AFLAC, Littlefield and H&R Block) have filed preliminary proxy statements, but they had other proposals that would have triggered a preliminary filing in any event. Other companies appear to have overlooked this requirement.

Below is a response that I received from a member in response when this same blurb from Brink was posted a few days ago on “The Advisors’ Blog“: Whether right or wrong, I believe common practice is that companies do not file preliminary proxy statements even when awards to employees are made subject to the approval by shareholders of a new plan or an amendment to an existing plan. And don’t forget this additional important nuance from NYSE and Nasdaq FAQs on Equity Compensation Plans – here is NYSE FAQ F-2 (2/18/04):

If shareholder approval of a new equity compensation plan is required, may grants be made before the approval is obtained, so long as the grants are forfeited if the shareholder approval is not in fact obtained?

No shares may be issued until the approval is obtained. This is because the Exchange requires that a supplemental listing application (“SLAP”) be filed before the shares are issued, and the SLAP will not be accepted unless any required shareholder approval has already been obtained. Grants may be made before shareholder approval, provided that no shares can actually be issued pursuant to the grants until it is obtained. For example, a listed company could grant stock options that would not become exercisable until after shareholder approval is obtained. On the other hand, restricted stock could not be issued before shareholder approval, because restricted stock is issued upon grant. Note, however, that the company could promise to issue restricted stock at a future date after shareholder approval is obtained.

– Broc Romanek