Posts Tagged ‘Executive compensation’

What a week, eh?

May 25, 2012

The week leading up to our long weekend in the U.S. gave investor relations people plenty of reasons to pause and consider what our profession is about:

Facebook faced issues with its IPO – including a brouhaha over the analysts for Morgan Stanley and three other underwriters lowering their estimates in the middle of FB’s road show. Some commentators call for SEC regulations to require investment banks running IPOs to disclose their analysts’ opinions broadly, not just to their favorite institutional investors. Something about a level playing field.

Reuters says Facebook told the analysts they’d better bring down their revenue and earnings forecasts, a wink-and-nod sort of investor relations not regarded as acceptable in recent years. Something about Regulation FD.

People care because the IPO lost its sizzle on the very first day, then dropped further. FB shares closed this week 16% below the IPO price. The Financial Times has a good narrative. Poor Wall Street. Poor Mark Zuckerberg. Poor speculators.

The hounds of the plaintiffs’ bar are in full chase, of course, barking loudly and threatening in all directions. The SEC and Congress are investigating. As a high-impact disclosure issue, this will be one to watch.

JPMorgan Chase continued to convulse over its trading loss of $2 billion, or is it $3 billion, or … whatever the amount, reputational damage exceeds the financial loss.

From an IR perspective, at least two aspects of JPM’s debacle are interesting:

  • The disclosure (or lack of disclosure) of the risks JPMorgan and its “London whale” were taking – and the losses they incurred. IR people should take a close look and consider how we would treat similar setbacks in our companies.
  • Corporate governance concerns came to a boil over doubts about the JPM board’s risk-policy committee and whether it had the right stuff to actually oversee risk for what is, basically, a huge global risk-taking machine.

Washington stalwarts, once again, are calling for new laws and regulations to codify the good sense that the old laws and regulations haven’t quite brought about. And we’ll be treated to the spectacle soon of Jamie Dimon going before Congressional panels to be used as a prop for politicians’ campaign videos. Oh, well.

General Motors filed an amendment to its proxy statement today noting that it “recently learned” of a related party transaction last year that it hadn’t disclosed.

GM says CFO Dan Ammann’s wife is a partner and COO of an advertising agency that got about $600,000 from a GM subsidiary in 2011 – and he didn’t know about it, so it wasn’t in the proxy. The deal was reported in AdWeek last fall, according to the Detroit Free Press, but apparently the $600K eluded the proxy writers. Oops.

Executive compensation remains a lightning-rod issue, especially in an election year. Plenty of misinformation is floating around, including this misleading headline from Associated Press: “Typical CEO made $9.6 million last year, AP study finds.”

You have to read way down into the story to find that AP’s sample included only S&P 500 companies, the largest cap companies in the U.S. market. Actually, AP had data from only 322 that had filed proxy statements through April 30. The other 7,000-plus publicly listed companies in the United States? Not part of the study.

None of my clients’ CEOs has $9.6 million in compensation. How about your boss or clients? But the AP headline paints with a very broad brush: “Typical CEOs …”

The AP headline might have said: “Large-cap CEOs made $9.6 million …” As it is, politicians trading on Joe Sixpack’s envy will just run with the anti-CEO broadside.

And companies will deal with the widespread assumption that CEOs and other execs are paid too much. Investor relations pros need to focus on providing the real numbers and explaining – in plain English, not legalese – why pay is what it is.

What do you think?

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

All I wanna know is, how much?

December 20, 2011

Private companies contemplating an IPO – and small caps debating whether it’s worth it to stay public – sometimes tally up the costs of complying with Sarbanes-Oxley, filing SEC reports, releasing earnings and so on.

Now Ernst & Young has gathered data from 26 companies that did IPOs in the past two years to come up with an answer. As reported in “The True Cost of Going Public” in CFO magazine’s December 2011 issue:

Operating as a public company adds about $2.5 million, on average, to a company’s cost structure, with $1.5 million of that devoted to higher compensation for CEOs, CFOs, and others in the finance function, such as investor-relations professionals, according to the survey. That figure also covers increased board costs, as more than 80% of companies had either added new members to their boards or increased director compensation prior to their IPO.

The accounting firm said companies spent an average of $13 million on advisers to help with the IPO – plus $1 million a year in various other fees for advisers. Where does all this advice come from?

Most companies retained at least 11 third-party advisers in connection with the IPO, the survey found, including, universally, investment bankers, attorneys, and auditors. About 70% of companies hired an investor-relations firm, while 40% hired a road-show consultant.

The benefits of being public vary – among them access to capital, liquidity for founders or venture capitalists, reduced cost of capital, currency for acquisitions, higher visibility and stock-based compensation. All figure in the reasons companies cite for going public and staying that way. Ultimately, each firm and its own shareholders must decide whether the benefits do outweigh the costs.

What do you think: Is being public worth it?

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Having your say on pay

May 19, 2011

As the new reality of “say on pay” votes by shareholders settles in, a guiding strategy for companies should be to have your own say. Investor relations professionals (and senior execs) need to learn how to communicate more clearly and proactively on pay and governance.

By last week, 20 U.S. companies had lost (failed to get 50% support in) say on pay votes so far in 2011, according to a posting today on the CFA Institute blog by Matt Orsagh. He notes that say on pay votes are essentially a communication tool:

The institutional investors we talk to — and it is institutional voters who cast the vast majority of these votes — tell us that they have no interest in setting pay, that compensation committees should do that.  What they do want is to be listened to when they feel there is a disconnect between pay and performance, and to have constructive conversations with companies about how to set things right.

But why wait until shareholders slap you in the face over a disconnect? The “Across the Board” column in the NYSE Magazine second-quarter edition suggests three areas of pre-emptive action on executive compensation issues:

  • Publish readable proxies. “Too often proxy statements are viewed as – and written like – legal documents,” NYSE quotes Ken Bertsch, president of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals. “… too many companies still try to cram too much information into too few pages with very little explanation about compensation policies and how they were developed.” Bertsch cites the CD&A in General Electric’s proxy as a model of clarity.
  • Launch a campaign. More companies are taking their governance and executive compensation stories on the road – meeting with big investors or holding conference calls on pay issues. Stephen Brown, TIAA-CREF’s governance guru, says companies like Avon Products are sending senior governance officers or independent board members to these meetings. (TIAA-CREF has published extensive policies and advice to companies here.)
  • Welcome shareholder views. Communication is, after all, two-way. Patrick McGurn of Institutional Shareholder Services cites the example of Pfizer inviting portfolio managers in to meet with execs for open-ended discussions on governance, pay and compliance issues. PFE has a Contact Our Directors page on its website, too. McGurn also suggests a “fifth analyst call” every year – to discuss governance issues rather than quarterly numbers.

My experience has been that corporate lawyers often guide the strategy on governance issues – and micromanage tactics like the wording of proxy statements. IR professionals, whose job is to communicate, should be more involved.

What’s your thought? Any best practices or examples of how to interact with institutional investors (or retail, for that matter) on governance and pay issues?

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

After the proxy fight (and before)

April 4, 2011

The April 2011 Harvard Business Review is “The Failure Issue” – with lots of good stories and lessons. In one, former Blockbuster CEO John Antioco  talks about his run-in with activist investor Carl Icahn – and Icahn responds (both available here).

Two different views emerge, as you might guess, from the corporate raider who calls Blockbuster “the worst investment I ever made” and the video-store CEO whose eject button got pushed. Blockbuster is still being sorted out in bankruptcy.

Proxy fights are appropriate for HBR‘s Failure Issue because, usually, a proxy fight is itself a sign of some failure in the business (speaking of a real battle for control, as opposed to those political proxy proposals arguing for societal reforms).

Antioco and Icahn’s comments on dealing with each other – especially early on – may provide some wisdom for investor relations people. We all face the possibility of some future encounter with an activist investor. Antioco begins:

When my assistant came into my office in early 2005 and told me that Carl Icahn was on the phone, it was a complete surprise. I knew, of course, that Icahn was an “activist shareholder,” but I had no idea why he might be calling. Icahn told me he’d bought nearly 10 million shares of Blockbuster … I didn’t know what kind of play he saw in Blockbuster.

Icahn’s response article offers a raison d’etre for activist investors, which also hints at what was in the background when he placed that call to Blockbuster:

The fact that I can make so much money as an activist investor [Forbes estimates Icahn's net worth at $11 billion] shows that something’s wrong with governance in most of corporate America. There’s no accountability for CEOs. There are good CEOs and good boards, but too many directors don’t care. Activist investors provide some accountability and can be important catalysts for change.

As Antioco tells the story, Blockbuster was troubled by the shift from videotapes to DVDs, the rise of online rental firm Netflix and the prospect of eventually watching movies online. His turnaround strategy involved spending $400 million to change Blockbuster’s business model – and that was an invitation to an activist investor.

Icahn and two other independents won election to the board in 2005. Before getting to what might have led to a more amicable solution, here is how Antioco describes dealing with activists once they’re in the boardroom:

Having contentious directors was a nightmare; as management, we spent much of our time justifying everything we did. One of them had a bunch of ideas, such as putting greeting cards in the stores, carrying adult movies, and making a deal with Barnes & Noble to add a book section. Mostly, though, they questioned our strategy …

Ah, the strategy. A few years later, Icahn is willing to admit that Antioco’s strategy was at least partly OK and he was doing a good job implementing it. But …

The biggest issue was his excessive compensation package. Investors were outraged that he’d get $50 million if there was a change of control. That was the nail in his coffin.

And so it went: contentious. In December 2006, management was due big bonuses because Blockbuster’s results were better – but pay was still an issue. The board asked Antioco to step out of a meeting, then slashed his bonus. Things got worse, until Icahn and Antioco hashed out a deal for the CEO to leave in June 2007.

In 2010, still struggling, Blockbuster filed Chapter 11. Failure all the way around.

Before that point, before the contentious board meetings and before the proxy fight – maybe even before Carl Icahn’s call to John Antioco – you have to wonder if astute management and an alert board might have taken actions to avoid failure.

Sure, it’s a game of “What if …” In this case, Antioco wonders if he should have met with Icahn earlier to communicate – to lay out his strategy – before the fight began. Icahn might have bought in, or decided to sell his stock and go away. Icahn wonders if the board should have let the ’06 bonuses go through, avoided a blowup and kept management focused on a strategy that seemed to be working.

Before the battle lines even formed, maybe management could have recognized the fierce competitive challenges and come up with solutions that didn’t involve betting $400 million of shareholders’ money on a couple of risky ideas. The best way to avoid activist shareholders, after all, is for management to be the activist.

What’s your take on avoiding that nasty phone call and a subsequent proxy fight?

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

SEC has its say on pay

January 25, 2011

The Securities and Exchange Commission adopted final rules on “Say on Pay” and other executive compensation requirements under the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010.

Starting now, most companies must get an advisory vote of shareholders on executive compensation at least every three years. And ask stockholders how often they want to offer their say on pay. And get input on “golden parachute” arrangements to take care of execs in mergers. And add disclosures, of course.

Only the smallest public companies (less than $75 million in float) get a reprieve: They won’t have to implement say on pay votes for two years, in 2013.

The SEC website provides a good summary of the provisions and a video of Chairman Schapiro’s comments today, and the text of the final rule. Look for more explanations from law firms and comments from corporate governance gurus.

More than just studying up, investor relations officers should talk through say on pay – and all issues around executive compensation – with their senior management and legal teams. This is the thrust of the National Investor Relations Institute’s counsel in a NIRI “Executive Alert” today:

Since President Obama signed Dodd-Frank into law on July 21, 2010, NIRI has reinforced its long-standing advice that members become more involved in their companies’ corporate governance process. Investor relations professionals are the primary conduit between companies and Wall Street, and are ideally suited to provide the executive team and board of directors the insight into shareholders that will be critical as these shareholders become more active and influential in corporate governance matters.

Executive pay and your company’s plans for putting these issues before shareholders will likely come up in conversations with investors, especially institutions, in the coming days. Preparing a Q&A or “talking points” would help keep management and IR on the same page with the legal beagles.

The say on pay rule isn’t surprising. In my mind, it’s not terribly helpful, either. But let’s face it: Astronomical paydays for high-visibility CEOs are tremendously unpopular. I hear gripes about fat cats’ pay from all kinds of people, including bankers, institutional investors, high net worth people and – gasp – Republicans.

The SEC rules for say on pay are a classic case of Washington’s reflex to “do something” each time the economy goes through a crisis. So … we’ll implement.

© 2011 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Mr. Market, meet Mr. Regulator

July 21, 2010

Today President Obama signed into law the far-reaching expansion of federal regulation of US banking and capital markets. The overhaul has been brewing in Washington since the financial crisis in 2008 – and the 848-page heft of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (PDF here) may have something to do with the two years spent crafting it. The law orders new rules governing banks and investments, creates new agencies, and grants regulatory powers here, there and everywhere.

Supporters say it will protect investors and consumers, prevent abusive and risky behaviors by the bad boys on Wall Street, and avert future financial meltdowns.

President Obama cited eternal benefits for the Act he signed: “The American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street’s mistakes [emphasis added].” Never again, of course, is Washington-speak that promises the latest patch in the roof will keep out the rain at least until after the next election. OK, that’s cynical. But financial crises have recurred every few years – over centuries and centuries – despite many previous regulatory fixes. Never again? Well …

For investor relations professionals trying to figure out what this wave of regulation means to us and the financial markets where we work, a few resources:

The New York Times story “Financial Overhaul Signals Shift on Deregulation” (July 15) offers an understandable overview and historical perspective on passage of the overhaul. The Times calls the new law “a catalog of repairs and additions to the rusted infrastructure of a regulatory system that has failed to keep up with the expanding scope and complexity of modern finance.”

A Wall Street Journal piece “Congress Overhauls Your Portfolio” (July 17) takes a “micro” view, looking into how regulatory expansion may affect individual or institutional investors – and companies.

“Several provisions promise to give investors a louder voice in policy-making circles and corporate boardrooms,” the WSJ says. Among the coming attractions: a new Office of the Investor Advocate at SEC to assist retail investors; an Investor Advisory Committee, also at SEC, watching out for investors’ interests; a mandate for the SEC to allow major shareholders access to corporate proxies to nominate directors; and nonbinding “say on pay” votes for shareholders.

Lawyers are weighing in with interpretations, too. On the Harvard Law blog on corporate governance and financial regulation, a partner in the firm of Davis Polk Wardwell LLP says this isn’t just about banks or Wall Street giants:

This legislation will affect every financial institution that operates in this country, many that operate from outside this country and will also have a significant effect on commercial companies. As a result, both financial institutions and commercial companies must now begin to deal with the historic shift in U.S. banking, securities, derivatives, executive compensation, consumer protection and corporate governance that will grow out of the general framework established by the bill. …

By our count, the bill requires 243 rulemakings and 67 studies. … U.S. financial regulators will enter an intense period of rulemaking over the next 6 to 18 months, and market participants will need to make strategic decisions in an environment of regulatory uncertainty.

Davis Polk has made its memorandum available online as a PDF. This 123-page “brief,” as the lawyers like to say, offers a rundown of all of the Dodd-Frank Act’s provisions and their implications for market participants. By scanning the Table of Contents, which hyperlinks into the narrative, you can see where you fit in.

What you can’t see is where all the rulemaking and wrangling will lead. In a few years, all of us probably will be running into financing deals that can’t be done, or reports that must be filed, or language that must be used – thanks to the 2010 Act.

Who knows what unintended consequences – such as increased costs of capital or even the genesis of our next “bubble and bust” cycle – may lurk amid the unknowns of the new law? I’m sure there is good in the Act, but also plenty of uncertainty.

Feel free to share your comments – pro, con or otherwise – by clicking below. And good luck with financial reform as it applies to your business.

© 2010 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

Getting real on compensation

November 20, 2009

If you work with the proxy statement or other communications on executive pay, you should read the Nov. 9 speech by Shelley Parratt, deputy director of the SEC Division of Corporation Finance, to the 4th Annual Proxy Disclosure Conference.

Parratt calls on companies to improve the quality of their Compensation Disclosure & Analysis sections – giving clearer, more specific analysis and better explanation of performance targets. She suggests starting over with a blank page, if necessary.

Mostly, Parratt’s comments offer a philosophy for disclosure on compensation. She notes that companies tend to respond with good disclosure once the SEC reviews their proxies – but don’t pay much attention if the SEC doesn’t come calling. Going forward, tangling with the SEC on the CD&A could hurt corporate reputations:

Any company that waits until it receives staff comments to comply with the disclosure requirements should be prepared to amend its filings if we raise material comments. Now is the time to engage in a rigorous analysis to develop meaningful, coherent and comprehensive executive compensation disclosure.

While the SEC staff may appear to serve as your editor from time to time, the CD&A is your story to tell, not ours. Read our guidance. Read the publicly-available comment letters. Take a fresh look at the disclosure requirements. Pay attention to what the market is looking for. Your disclosure will be better if you do.

Concern about pay levels isn’t limited to SEC officials and politicians with a polulist bent. Even the biggest investors can get upset about compensation – as in today’s Wall Street Journal story on mutual funds that are big holders of Goldman Sachs:

Some of the largest shareholders in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have urged the Wall Street firm to reduce the size of its bonus pool, arguing that it should pass along more of its blockbuster earnings to investors…

For a lively take on the potential for more asset managers turning activist on pay, watch the Yahoo! “Tech Ticker” commentary by Aaron Task and Henry Blodget.

Take-home message for the 2010 proxy season: Write the CD&A as if you’re sitting across the table explaining your pay policies to one of those concerned investors.

(Thanks to the panelists at the Kansas City NIRI meeting Nov. 17 for calling this SEC staffer’s speech to our attention.)

Toxic compensation is catching on

December 20, 2008

My one contribution to the 2008 financial bailout was an idea back in September to motivate members of Congress, Treasury bosses and Fed honchos to fix the markets by paying them in mortgage-backed securities. If the bailouts fizzle, the compensation is worthless. If the economic fix works, the power brokers are in the money.

Uncle Sam hasn’t adopted this scheme, but toxic compensation seems to be catching on in the private sector. At least, the eminent Credit Suisse is on board, according to Thursday’s online Wall Street Journal:

ZURICH – Credit Suisse Group said Thursday it will use up to $5 billion of its own illiquid assets such as mortgage securities to pay senior staff year-end bonuses at its investment bank, a move meant to spread risk more evenly between the bank and its employees.

The Zurich-based bank plans to pool commercial mortgage-backed securities and leveraged loans it can’t sell because demand has seized up, then dole out units in the entity to managing directors and directors as part of this year’s pay, according to a memo made available by a spokesman.

I don’t imagine investment bankers accustomed to stacks of cash will be celebrating this New Year’s over the new-fangled paper scrip. But maybe financial innovators, suitably motivated, can figure out how to get the markets unstuck. And toxic compensation may be better accepted on Main Street than the cash still being paid to some executives on Wall Street.


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