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Photo by Rachita Singh

A little over two years ago, the Council of Institutional Investors (“CII”) asked the SEC to review its proxy disclosure rules related to director compensation received from third parties, which we had blogged about here. At the time, the CII was concerned that the existing proxy rules did not capture compensation that may be paid to directors serving on the board of a public company by a third party, such as a private fund or an activist investor, which are typically referred to as “golden leashes.”

In its letter to the SEC, the CII cited concerns that compensation under golden leash arrangements is not generally covered by the existing proxy disclosure rules, but could be material to investors due to the potential conflicts of interest arising under such arrangements. We had noted many of these issues in a prior blog post discussing the performance-based compensation arrangements of hedge fund-nominated directors for the boards of Hess Corporation and Agrium, Inc. in 2013. As we predicted would be the case, nothing really transpired on this topic in the wake of the CII’s request. That is until recently, when Nasdaq filed a proposed rule change, subsequently approved by the SEC, attempting to address this issue.
Continue Reading Nasdaq-listed companies must now disclose director “golden leash” arrangements

It’s done. On August 5, the SEC adopted final rules that will require publicly traded companies to disclose the ratio of the CEO’s “total compensation” to that of the “median employee.” We’re still wending our way through the massive (294 pages) adopting release, but one piece of good news (possibly the only one) is that it appears that pay ratio disclosures won’t be needed until 2018 for most companies.

I’ve already posted my views on this rule (see “CEO pay ratios: ineffective disclosure on steroids”), so it’s no surprise that I’m not happy. However, what is surprising are the myths and madness that the mandate has already created. First, there’s the “median employee,” who may be a myth in and of him/herself. But that’s not all; the media (notably The New York Times) have begun to tout the rule and make all sorts of predictions about how it will impact CEO pay, many of which involve myths and madness of their own.

Myth: In an August 6 column, Peter Eavis wrote about the rule, saying “the ratio, cropping up every year in audited financial statements, could stoke and perhaps even inform a debate over income inequality”. Really? In the audited financial statements? I haven’t finished reading the rule, despite its being such a page-turner, but I didn’t see that in there and don’t think I will. Someone better tell the audit firms – and also tell Mr. Eavis that the ratio is not auditable.


Continue Reading Pay ratio disclosure: Myths and madness

For those who think nothing ever gets done in Washington, last week must have been a challenge. From outward appearances, both the SEC and the PCAOB seem to be working overtime, possibly in order to ruin our holiday weekend or at least lay some guilt on us for not spending the weekend reading what they’ve put out.

First, on July 1 the SEC published rule proposals on the last of the so-called Dodd-Frank “four horsemen” (or, as the SEC Staffers called them, the “Gang of Four”) compensation and governance provisions – specifically, clawbacks. It’s too soon for even nerds like me to have gone over the proposed rules in any detail, but at first blush they disappoint in a few respects. Among other things, they appear to call for mandatory recoupment of performance-based compensation whenever the financials are restated, without regard to fault or misconduct; even a “mere” mistake will trigger the clawback. Moreover, neither the board, nor the audit committee, nor the compensation committee will have any discretion or any ability to consider mitigating circumstances. Last (for now), they do not seem to provide any exemptions or relief for small companies, emerging growth companies or the like. Interestingly, equity awards that are solely time-vested will not be considered performance-based compensation for purposes of the proposed rules. Of course, these are only proposed rules, and they will eventually take the form of exchange listing standards rather than SEC rules, but the basic approach is absolute and draconian, and it’s difficult to envision them changing very much.


Continue Reading  Summer doldrums in DC? Not so much!

As we approach the end of the 2015 peak proxy season, the annual parade of articles and studies of executive compensation has begun. To no one’s surprise (at least not mine), the numbers keep going up, and some investors and media types are looking for someone to blame.   Companies and their boards or compensation committees are obvious targets (in some cases, quite justifiably), and some have criticized investors themselves, who continue to overwhelmingly support say-on-pay proposals whether or not their support seems warranted.

If you accept that one symptom of insanity is to repeat the same behaviors over and over again while expecting different results, then it appears we’re in the midst of an epidemic of compensation craziness. Why did anyone seriously think that say-on-pay votes would cause executive compensation to decrease? (Parenthetically, there are people who think that disclosure of CEO-to-median employee pay ratios will lead to a reduction in executive pay. Talk about crazy.) I learned a long time ago – from the mouth of Pearl Meyer herself – that every attempt to rein in executive pay by legislation, regulation or disclosure (i.e., shame) has failed. Why did anyone think this would be different? In other words, limiting executive compensation is like what Mark Twain said (or not) about the weather – everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. At least nothing that works.

Well, maybe not. It seems that Dan Price, the CEO of a company called Gravity Payments in Seattle, who’s been making over “a million-dollar salary,” decided this year that he would do something about it. Specifically, he cut his compensation and decided that everyone in his company would make at least $75,000 per year. You’d think that he’d be given laurel wreaths or maybe a ticker-tape parade, at least in some circles of compensation-land, but you’d be wrong. There have been articles (i.e., screeds) written by some in the industry that he’s going about it all wrong, that it’s not a solution that can be applied on a broad base, and so on. He’s even been referred to as crazy.


Continue Reading Crazy is as crazy does – compensation run amok?

Director fiduciary dutiesA recent case out of the Delaware Court of Chancery could result in heightened scrutiny of equity award grants to non-employee directors. Although this decision was rendered at the procedural stage of the case and the merits of the claims have yet to be fully analyzed, this case potentially affects directors of Delaware companies and those advising them on compensation-related matters.

In this case, a stockholder of Citrix, Inc. (“Citrix”) brought a derivative lawsuit against the Citrix board of directors alleging a number of things, including breach of fiduciary duty by the board of directors in awarding significant equity compensation awards. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that restricted stock units (“RSUs”) granted to non-employee directors (who constituted eight of the nine Citrix board members) under the Citrix equity incentive plan, were excessive.

Because the non-employee directors who received the RSU grants in question constituted eight of the nine members of the Citrix board of directors, the plaintiff was successfully able to rebut the business judgement rule presumption and the defendants bear the burden of proving to the court’s satisfaction that the RSU grants were the product of both fair dealing and fair price (i.e., the “entire fairness” standard of review).

The defendants argued that
Continue Reading Chancery Court Holds Board to Heightened Fiduciary Duty Standard in Connection with Equity Awards

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.”

Really?

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.


Continue Reading CEO pay ratios: ineffective disclosure on steroids

Britney Spears has nothing on Institutional Shareholder Services, better known as ISS.  ISS is rolling out proposed new voting policies for the 2015 proxy season.  ISS often uses more words to tout how transparent it is than to explain its voting policies clearly, and the draft policies being considered for 2015 are no different.

One

Regulations continue to be burden on public companiesAlthough you may have missed the fireworks and the parade, we celebrated the one year anniversary of the JOBS Act on April 5th.  Of course you wouldn’t have been alone if you missed the big celebration because, unfortunately, despite the initial hype surrounding the JOBS Act, not much has happened.  The media has chastised the JOBS Act for not fulfilling its early promise.  Most of the innovative provisions of the JOBS Act remain unimplemented by the SEC such as the relaxation of the ban on general solicitation on private offerings, crowd funding, and the improvement to Regulation A.  But even Title I (generally referred to as the “IPO on Ramp”), which was effective over a year ago, hasn’t had much effect.  In fact, IPOs, according to Jay Ritter at the University of Florida, have actually decreased for the so-called emerging growth companies.

How can this be?  While there can be numerous factors for why IPOs continue to remain elusive (costs of regulation and a poor economy are the top factors), other factors such as a rising stock market and pent up demand for IPOs should be compelling companies to go public.  Or is it possible that the cost of regulation that has been piled on since the fall of Enron trump everything else?

When Congress passed Title I of the JOBS Act, Congress recognized that public companies have been facing increased burdens for being public.  Although the causal relationship was suspect at best, Congress determined that over regulation was responsible for the severe drop off in IPOs from the 1990s through the 2000s.  While I might suggest that the dotcom bubble bursting may have played a part in the decrease in IPOs, I would agree that the unrelenting regulation that has come out of Congress over the past decade (Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank) as well as rulemaking from the SEC itself (executive compensation disclosures) must have had some effect.

As a reminder, Title I of the JOBS Act, among other things, reduces executive compensation disclosures.  Specifically, emerging growth companies (companies with less than $1 billion in revenues) are exempt from holding “Say-on-Pay” and “Say-on-Golden Parachutes” votes, disclosing the two controversial executive compensation pay ratios required under Dodd-Frank, and providing a Compensation Discussion and Analysis (CD&A). Other executive compensation disclosure is also shortened by reducing the number of named executive officers, reducing disclosure from three to two years, and eliminating certain compensation tables.  In other words, Title I of the JOBS Act was designed to address over regulation of executive compensation for public companies.

While this was a great start by Congress, companies haven’t taken advantage of Title I because
Continue Reading Executive compensation disclosure is too great a burden for issuers