June 11, 2009

The SEC and Treasury on Executive Compensation Practices

Yesterday marked a significant day in the ongoing involvement of the US government in executive compensation, as Treasury Secretary Geithner outlined a series of broad-based principles that companies – particularly financial institutions – should consider in connection with the design and implementation of their executive compensation programs. Secretary Geithner’s statements followed a meeting involving SEC Chairman Schapiro, Federal Reserve Governor Dan Tarullo and several compensation experts.

The principles that Secretary Geithner outlined yesterday should come as no surprise to those who have been reading our publications over the last several years. The principles draw on best practices that we have seen developing in the marketplace over time, and for the most part can be universally applied. (Nothing in Geithner’s comments seemed to indicate that the guidance was limited strictly to financial institutions, but banks will see these standards in more concrete terms as they are worked into the supervisory process of bank regulators.)

Here are the principles:

1. Compensation plans should properly measure and reward performance – Incentive compensation plans should be tied to performance in the sense of long-term value creation, which could be accomplished by using a wide range of internal and external metrics (and not just the company’s stock price), including metrics that distinguish the company’s performance from its peers.

2. Compensation should be structured to account for the time horizon of risk – Continuing the theme of aligning pay with long-term value creation, the principles encourage conditioning compensation on longer-term performance and thereby obviating the need for specific clawbacks, while encouraging the holding of equity awards for longer periods.

3. Compensation practices should be aligned with sound risk management – As we have heard repeatedly since the financial crisis, compensation committees are encouraged to conduct and publish risk assessments of compensation plans in order to “ensure that they do not encourage imprudent risk taking.”

4. Golden parachutes and supplemental retirement packages should be reevaluated – Companies should reexamine the extent to which golden parachutes and supplemental retirement packages are aligned with shareholder interests, whether they incentive performance and whether they result in value to executives even when shareholders lose value.

5. Promotion of transparency and accountability in the compensation-setting process – Citing the lack of independence of compensation committees and the lack of clarity in disclosures (including the lack of a true “walkaway” number for top executives), two legislative initiatives are proposed.

The first legislative initiative outlined yesterday is a push for an advisory vote on executive compensation, which goes beyond the previously introduced legislation and the pending Shareholder Bill of Rights, in that it would require a vote on executive compensation as disclosed in the proxy statement (including the CD&A and the compensation tables) and a vote targeting the compensation reported for each of the named executive officers. Similar to the prior proposals, a non-binding vote on golden parachutes would also be required in merger proxies.

The second legislative initiative coming out of the announcement is a new framework for compensation committees that would be analogous to the audit committee provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Under SEC-mandated listing standards, the compensation committee members would be subject to the higher independence standards applicable to audit committee members, the compensation committee would get resources to hire and oversee its own advisors and independence standards would be prescribed for outside compensations consultants and outside counsel. This initiative comes as somewhat of a surprise to me, because while compensation consultant conflicts have been a concern, I have not heard much in the post-Sarbanes-Oxley era about concerns that compensation committees lack sufficient independence.

Chairman Schapiro also released a statement yesterday, reiterating the rulemaking efforts under consideration on executive pay and corporate governance. Proposals are expected on these in the next several weeks. Not to be outdone, Congressman Barney Frank issued a statement, generally supporting Secretary Geithner’s principles (except for the compensation committee proposal), but also indicating that Congress should go further and “adopt legislation that mandates that the SEC adopt appropriate rules that embody these principles.”

Treasury Issues Much-Anticipated Rules Implementing TARP Exec Comp Restrictions

We also saw the Treasury announce that it had finally published interim final rules implementing the executive compensation provisions from the Recovery Act. The lack of guidance had created difficulties for financial institutions participating in the TARP program, since they were not sure what to do with their compensation programs in the absence of greater clarity in how the legislation was to be applied.

The rules implement and expand on the Recovery Act provisions. Some new provisions that go beyond the statutory requirements include:

– Prohibiting tax gross-ups to senior executive officers and the 20 next most highly compensated employees;

– Requiring additional disclosure (to the Treasury and the principal regulator) of perquisites in excess of $25,000 for employees subject to the bonus restrictions, including a narrative description of, and justification for, the perquisites.

– Requiring a disclosure (to the Treasury and the principal regulator) of the use of compensation consultants, including a discussion of any non-compensation services performed and the use of “benchmarking” procedures.

It is Here: The SEC Publishes the Shareholder Access Release

Last night, the SEC posted the shareholder access release. The release comes in at 250 pages with 181 specific comment requests (with many of those including multiple questions), so there will be lots to comment on. The release includes an extensive discussion of the background and rationale for shareholder access, as well as a cool chart outlining the proposed Rule 14a-11 deadlines. I’ll cover more on some of the specifics in the proposals over the next couple of days.

– Dave Lynn