On Sunday, April 12, the Business section of the New York Times led with an article by Gretchen Morgenson taking the SEC to task for not having adopted rules requiring disclosure of CEO pay ratios. This follows similar complaints by members of Congress, most recently in the form of a March letter by 58 Democratic congressmen to Chair White. And going further back – specifically, to Chair White’s Senate confirmation hearing in March 2013 – Senator Warren told Chair-Designate White that SEC action on this rule “should be near the top of your list.”
I’ve given this a great deal of thought since Congress mandated pay ratio disclosure in the Dodd-Frank Act, and I’ve yet to figure out why – aside from political considerations – so many people think this disclosure is so important or what it will achieve. In fact, when I coordinated a comment letter on the rule proposal as Chair of the Securities Law Committee of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals, I told a number of people that it was the hardest comment letter I’d ever worked on, and I believe that was the case because it was hard to comment on a proposal that struck and continues to strike me as ill-advised and unnecessary in its entirety.
Ms. Morgenson’s article proves my point. It provides pay ratio data for a number of companies, as determined by a Washington think tank. But at the end of the article, all the data demonstrate is that the CEOs of the companies in question make a ton of money. The ratios don’t tell us anything more than that; Disney had the highest ratio, but does anyone need a ratio to know that its CEO makes lots of money? Ditto Oracle, Starbucks and the others – in all cases, the ratio is far less informative than the dollar amounts, which of course are and have for many years been disclosable.
The ratios might – but only might – be more meaningful if we knew what the underlying facts are; for example, what is the mix of US to non-US employees? To what extent are the employees part-time or seasonal? But of course the article doesn’t reveal this information, and neither would the proposed SEC rules. And the SEC Staff has indicated the final rules are not likely to allow companies to exclude non-US, part-time or seasonal employees. In other words, we won’t be able to distinguish between two companies with the same pay ratios regardless of the fact that one may have vast numbers of employees in the third world while the other’s employees are located in major industrialized countries.
It’s not for nothing that I’m a securities lawyer. I sincerely believe in the need for and efficacy of full and fair disclosure, both professionally and personally. That’s one of the many reasons why I have been advocating disclosure reform – or, as we now call it, “effective disclosure” – to assure that important matters are disclosed, and that unimportant matters need not be.
So it’s not surprising that I’m upset about something that happened recently. I attended a program at which a representative of a major institutional investor said that his firm just doesn’t have time to read the proxy statements of the companies in which the firm has invested. I’ve heard this song before in various guises – for example, one major institution told me a few years ago that the most they’d ever spend reading a 100-page proxy statement was 15-20 minutes – but for some reason the statement I heard recently really bothered me.
Why do securities lawyers spend most of their waking hours, and many of the hours when they should be sleeping, trying to provide investors with the information they need to make important decisions? (And, for the cynics out there, I’ve never heard a securities lawyer say anything like “How can we hide this?”) Why do companies spend untold amounts of money paying their lawyers to do that? More important, why is it acceptable for major investors to say that they don’t read their investees’ disclosures? Does it ever occur to them that they may be in violation of their legal and ethical obligations to their clients by blowing off the obligation to read those disclosures and voting on significant matters without reading those disclosures?
Which brings me back to “effective disclosure.” I’m passionate about the topic, and I’ve put my time (which is, after all, money) where my mouth is. But I’d be crazy not to think about whether it’s really worth the time and effort it will take to overhaul our approach to disclosure if, at the end of the proverbial day, few if any people will benefit from it or even care about it.
Years ago I commented on an SEC rule proposal by saying, among other things, that it would result in more disclosure that no one would read. I was told by the then-Director of the SEC Division of Corporation Finance that rulemaking isn’t based on whether anyone reads the disclosures in question. At the time, I thought he was probably right, but now I’m not so sure.
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, is reputed to be a decisive person with a strong personality. Of course, that shouldn’t be news to anyone who follows business or who knows what it takes to be CEO of a major company. So it’s interesting that he recently said that he struggled with whether JPM should disclose that he was battling cancer. (For the record, he seems to have won the battle.)
I’m not the only securities lawyer who’s had similar struggles when the CEO of a client has become seriously ill. It’s a very challenging issue for several reasons. First, there isn’t any rule – or even any literature (at least to my knowledge) – that tells us whether and what to disclose in this situation. So when a client says, “show me the rule that says we have to disclose this,” there’s nothing to show. Second, and more important, the issue pits the need to disclose against information that is quintessentially personal. It’s also not just an issue between the executive and the company; often, the executive’s family and, possibly, his/her medical team and others are equally involved. And even when there’s agreement to disclose, it’s very difficult to know what to say about the prognosis, if and when the executive can return to work, and so on.
I think JPM’s decision to disclose was the right one. Among other things, JPM and Mr. Dimon are inextricably linked with each other; he is the public face of the company, and it’s hard to imagine mentioning one without the other. In fact, it’s arguably this linkage that led to the defeat of shareholder proposals seeking to deprive Mr. Dimon of his title as Chairman of the Board; no one wanted to see if he would carry out his threat to leave the company if the proposals passed. Second, his illness was grave and could have killed him. In other words, it seems pretty clear that the information was market-moving – a factor that must be considered in making the disclosure decision. (That said, contrast this with Apple’s treatment of Steve Jobs’s illness.) Also, according to Mr. Dimon, he lost 35 pounds in his battle, making it painfully obvious that something was up. So why hesitate to disclose something that everyone could see?
Another way of evaluating the matter is to consider whether there are any meritorious reasons not to disclose. When I had to grapple with a similar decision, the facts were different; among other things, the CEO wasn’t the company’s alter ego, and it was questionable whether the stock would tank if we disclosed. On the other hand, the company had just gotten past a nasty scandal and a period of intense upheaval in which two senior people had left and the company’s credibility had been shattered. In these circumstances I couldn’t see a significant reason not to disclose. I took some heat from the CEO’s family, but I had no doubt that I made the right decision.