Pay without Performance: The Unfulfilled Promise of Executive Compensation was the best book published in 2004 in the field of corporate governance. Lucian Bebchuk and Jesse Fried focus on one aspect of corporate governance, executive pay, and clearly demonstrate that many features of executive pay are better explained as a result of shear managerial power, rather than arm’s-length bargaining by boards of directors. After thoughtful analysis, they find “systematic use of compensation practices that obscure the amount and performance insensitivity of pay, and the showering of gratuitous benefits on departing executives.” The cost of current corporate governance systems is weak incentives to reduce managerial slack or increase shareholder value and “perverse incentives” for managers to “misreport results, suppress bad news, and choose projects and strategies that are less transparent.” Their recommendations on improving executive compensation are clearly aimed at eliminating or reducing some of the most egregious of the practices of those they document. Interestingly, the recommendations are written to shareholders, apparently because there is little likelihood such reforms will be raised by even “independent” directors without further corporate governance reforms. A few examples are as follows:
- To reduce windfalls in equity-based plans, shareholder should encourage that at least some of the gains in stock price due to general market or industry movements be filtered out. “At a minimum, option exercise prices should be adjusted so that managers are rewarded for stock price gains only to the extent that they exceed those gains (if any) enjoyed by the most poorly performing firms.”
- Executives should be prohibited from hedging or derivative transactions to reduce their exposure to fluctuations in the company’s stock and should be required to disclose proposed sale of shares in advance to reduce perverse incentives to benefit from short-term gains that don’t reflect long-term prospects.
- Do not provide large payments to executives who depart because of poor performance.
- The compensation table should include and should place a dollar value on all forms of “stealth” compensation, such as pensions, deferred compensation, postretirement perks and consulting requirements.
- Allow shareholders to propose and vote on binding rules for executive compensation arrangements.
Although many directors now own shares, their related financial incentives are still too weak to induce them to take on the unpleasant task of firmly negotiating with their CEOs. Recent reforms requiring a majority of independent directors, and their exclusive use on compensation and nominating committees, may be beneficial but “cannot be relied on” to produce the kind of arm’s length relationship between directors and executives needed. CEOs retain influence over director compensation and rewards, as well as social and psychological rewards. “The key to reelection is remaining on the company’s slate.” Remaining on good terms with the CEO and their director allies continues to be the best strategy for renominatation.
Executive compensation “requires case-specific knowledge and thus is best designed by informed decision makers.” They conclude, “While we should lessen directors’ dependence on executives, we should also seek to increase directors’ dependence on shareholders.” After discussing the now failed “open access” SEC proposal to grant shareholders the right to place a token number of candidates on the ballot after specified “triggering events,” the authors propose the following significant corporate governance reforms:
- Access to the ballot should be granted to any group of shareholders that satisfies certain ownership thresholds. Their example is 5%, held for at least a year.
- Such slates should be able to replace all or most incumbent directors in any given year.
- Companies should be required to distribute the proxy statements of shareholder nominated candidates and should be required to reimburse reasonable costs if they garner “sufficient support.”
- Legal reforms should require or encourage firms to have all directors stand for election together.
- Shareholders should be given the power to initiate and approved proposals to reincorporate and/or adopt charter amendments.
In their conclusion, the authors recognize the “political obstacles to the necessary legal reforms are substantial” and that “corporate management has long been a powerful interest group.” The demand for reforms must be greater than management’s power to block them. “This can happen only if investors and policy makers recognize the substantial costs that current arrangement impose.” Pay without Performance will certainly contribute to such recognition. It should be required reading for every fund fiduciary, SEC board and staff, as well as all members of Congress. Shareholders should read while sitting down.