If the CEO is overpaid, blame the compensation committee – Robert Pozen & S.P. Kothari

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Robert Pozen

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Robert Pozen

MIT Sloan Professor SP Kothari

From The Wall Street Journal

Every year, shareholders of U.S. companies weigh in on executive pay by casting advisory votes on the reports of compensation committees. The committees are appointed by corporate boards to make recommendations about appropriate pay levels. Shareholders tend to take their reports at face value, voting to approve them in over 97% of cases. But their confidence is undermined by a lack of awareness about the often flawed methods compensation committees use to determine pay.

The trouble is that compensation committees frequently rely on faulty performance metrics that inflate executive pay. But the committee reports do not provide a sufficient explanation of these metrics to shareholders.

First, their reports routinely use “adjusted” earnings that are much higher than the figures calculated under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. While many companies tout adjusted numbers in their press releases on earnings, regulations require these releases to give their GAAP figures equal prominence. By contrast, there is no similar rule for compensation reports, which may use only the adjusted numbers without quantifying their differences from GAAP.

Take Merck & Co., whose CEO had a bonus goal for 2015 of $3.40 in adjusted earnings per share. The compensation committee concluded that he had met that target, since the company’s adjusted earnings were $3.56 per share. But the committee’s report failed to mention that GAAP earnings were only $1.56 per share.

This example is not unique.

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Decoding CEO Pay – Robert Pozen & S.P. Kothari

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Robert Pozen

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Robert Pozen

From Harvard Business Review 

Each year most public companies issue reports on the pay packages of their top executives, describing how their compensation committees arrived at the numbers. These reports are part of the proxy statements sent to all shareholders, who vote on the packages. The votes are advisory or binding, depending on the country where a company is chartered.

More than 95% of the time, shareholders overwhelmingly approve the pay recommendations. Yet our research suggests that investors should be more skeptical. Compensation committees frequently adjust company performance numbers in complex and

MIT Sloan Professor SP Kothari

even obscure ways, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, for example, they want to focus on the performance of a company’s core or continuing operations. Whatever the motive, the upshot is all too often inflated numbers, calculated on a nonstandard basis, that rationalize overly generous compensation.

Given that reality, compensation committees need to explain the basis of their decisions more clearly in their reports. For their part, investors need to develop standards and best practices for compensation design and reporting, around which they can build a meaningful dialogue with companies. Such a dialogue is critical today in view of the public’s concerns over the rising ratio of CEO pay to the average worker’s wages and of shareholders’ growing insistence that high pay be justified by superior managerial performance.

In this article we’ll review the common shortcomings of compensation committee reports, especially the use of nonstandard accounting measures and the selection of inappropriate peer companies. We’ll also propose ways in which companies and shareholders can improve their approach to determining top management’s compensation. Let’s begin by looking at an example of the problem.

Generous to a Fault

In their reports, most compensation committees identify the criteria used to award both annual cash bonuses and longer-term stock grants—usually the two largest components of executive pay. But even at the most upstanding companies, those criteria are seldom well explained.

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