November 17, 2017

Board Composition: More Insiders Needed?

According to the most recent edition of the “Spencer Stuart” board survey, the CEO was the only insider serving as a director on approximately 60% of S&P 500 boards.  This Sidley memo says that a recent study indicates that may not be such a good thing:

Based on S&P 1500 company data from 2003 to 2014, the study concluded that companies with lone-insider boards (i.e., boards with no inside directors other than the CEO) awarded their CEOs “excess pay” (i.e., pay above what factors such as firm size, CEO age, CEO tenure, CEO equity ownership, industry, stock returns and performance would predict), with such CEOs receiving approximately 82% more pay than CEOs at peers with more than one insider on the board.

The study found that, as compared to their non-lone-insider peers, companies with lone-insider boards (1) have a $2.99 million larger pay gap between the CEO and other top management team (TMT) members, (2) are 1.27 times more likely to experience financial misconduct (defined as instances of financial restatements that are not due to clerical errors or minor accounting issues) and (3) experience poorer performance (e.g., a 10% lower return on assets).

The study says that analyst coverage and a high percentage of institutional share ownership mitigated the negative effects of a sole insider board on CEO pay vs. company  performance – but not for pay gaps between the CEO & other executives or financial misconduct.

While We’re on the Topic of Inside Directors…

This “Columbia Blue Sky” blog discusses a new study by Virginia Tech’s Prof. Donald Bowen that says maybe those pre-SOX insider dominated boards weren’t so terrible after all.  This excerpt summarizes the study’s results;

In a new working paper, I examine these questions by taking a new approach that exploits the implementation of the law. In short, the independent board mandates defined independence such that some directors could reclassify from non-independent to independent.

The effect of this definition is that while some firms—“treatment” firms—were required to change the membership of the board to meet the requirement, other firms—“placebo” firms—complied not because their directors changed, but because the classification of their directors changed. Importantly, the social and economic relationship between the CEO and director are largely unchanged for reclassified directors. As such, the reclassifications made boards at placebo firms more independent legally, but not economically.

My main tests show that placebo firms significantly outperformed treatment firms following the introduction of the independent board rules. I also show that the specific conditions that determine whether a firm is defined as a treatment firm or placebo firm are effectively random. This gives the estimated performance advantage of placebo firms a causal interpretation and implies that treatment firms performed worse because their boards were changed. In other words, the mandated governance policies impeded the conduct of firms targeted by the regulations.

Overboarding: What’s Good for the Goose. . .

This  WSJ article points out that overboarding is a big issue for institutional investors – and this excerpt says that some big players are using their voting clout to curb the practice:

BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, cast 168 votes against directors this year due to overboarding concerns. It fought the reelection of directors at companies such as Charter Communications Inc., Pfizer Inc. and PayPal Holdings, Inc., according to filings and a spokesman for the money manager.

BlackRock wasn’t alone – the article says that last year, State Street cast votes against 69 CEOs who served on more than 3 boards & against 22 non-CEO directors who each sat on more than 6 public boards.

But this blog from Professor Ann Lipton suggests that these institutions may not be the right folks to lead the charge on this issue:

Most mutual fund companies employ a single board – or a few clusters of boards – to oversee all of the funds in the complex. This can result in directors serving on over 100 boards in extreme cases. State Street’s Equity 500 Index Fund, for example, reports trustees who serve on 72 or 78 boards within the complex. BlackRock’s Target Allocation Funds have trustees who serve on either 28 and 98 different boards (depending on how you count).

I’ll admit this is something of a cheap shot: presumably each fund is much more similar to the other funds than are the various companies at which overboarding concerns are raised. Still, when you get to over 20 funds per director, that’s a lot, no? Or 50 funds? Especially since the funds have varying interests – they might stand on opposite sides of a merger, or invest at different levels within a single firm’s capital structure, or compete for limited opportunities like IPO allocations and pre-IPO shares.

John Jenkins