The Investor Responsibility Research Center (IRRC) Institute and PROXY Governance Inc. (PGI) today released a new study, “Compensation Peer Groups at Companies with High Pay,” that identifies a subset of S&P 500 companies with high pay that is not aligned with high performance. The data reveal that high executive pay companies self-select larger than appropriate peers – in terms of market capitalization and revenue – for compensation benchmarking purposes. The self-selected peer groups also are better performers. Then, not content with systemically skewing the comparables for the purpose of setting executive compensation, the boards of directors of the high pay companies basically ignore the peer groups to compensate chief executive officers (CEO) an average of more than double, or 103 percent, above the median of the self-selected peer group. By contrast, the baseline, or non-high pay, companies paid CEOs an average of 15 percent lower than the median of benchmarking peers. The key research findings are as follows:
While all companies in the study tended to select larger compensation peers, the differential was more dramatic for companies with high pay. Measured by market capitalization, companies with high pay were an average of 45 percent smaller than self-selected peers versus an average of 5 percent smaller among baseline companies. Measured by revenue, companies with high pay were an average of 25 percent smaller than self-selected peers, while baseline companies averaged only 17 smaller.
- Unlike baseline companies, companies with high pay tended to select higher-performing companies as compensation peers. On average, companies with high pay performed 7.7 points worse than self-selected peers, based on the studyʼs aggregate scoring metric. By contrast, baseline companies performed an average of 3.0 percentile points better than their self-selected peers.
- Companies with high pay were also more likely (21 percent) than baseline companies (17 percent) to select other companies with high pay as compensation peers. Conversely, however, the average company with high pay appeared in fewer S&P 500 compensation peer groups, at 8.5, than the average baseline company, at 10.3.
- Companies with high pay compensated their CEOs an average of 103 percent above peer group median despite being 25 percent smaller than those peers by revenue. Baseline companies, by contrast, paid their CEOs an average of 15 percent below peer group median – a discount roughly in line with approximately 17 percent smaller average revenue.
- Companies with high pay also structured their larger CEO pay packages with a disproportionately richer mix of equity awards (69 percent of total pay) than either their self-selected peers (62 percent) or baseline companies (61 percent). Full value equity awards at companies with high pay constituted 41.3 percent of total pay, versus 35.2 percent among self-selected peers and at baseline companies.
- Contrary to general perceptions, having an external CEO on the compensation committee appeared to act as a mild deterrent to high pay. Among the S&P 500 companies, 6.5 percent of companies with high pay had external CEOs on the compensation committee, versus 9.0 percent of baseline companies. Across the broader Russell 3000, only 1.7 percent of companies with high pay had external CEOs on the compensation committee, versus 10.5 percent of baseline companies.
- Nearly 65 percent of companies with high pay had a CEO who was also chairman, slightly higher than the 60 percent rate among baseline companies. Baseline companies, however, were moderately more likely to have a classified board (29 percent versus 24 percent) or have had a shareholder pay proposal on the ballot in the prior three years (29 percent versus 24 percent).
In my experience, companies that benchmark to larger than appropriate peers do so because they pick their peer group based on aspiration, rather than reality. Yeah, I’d like to play like Tracy McGrady. If my board pays me to match his $23,239,561, will that motivate me enough to play as well as McGrady?