Yesterday, the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX) released standards for shareowners to use in making say-on-pay voting decisions. “Say-on-pay” rules mandated by Dodd-Frank allow shareowners to express an opinion on executive compensation at annual meetings. But to make informed voting decisions, shareowners must first assess the compensation packages boards propose. That is not easy, since they tend to be very complex. Even sophisticated business professionals have a difficult time evaluating them, so how can average shareowners hope to do so?
This is not an idle issue. In the 2011 proxy season, institutional investors acted with breathtaking irresponsibility, collectively approving 98.3% of compensation packages. They did this as executive compensation continues to skyrocket. In 1965, CEO pay at large companies was 24 times the average worker’s wages. In 2010, that ratio was a staggering 343 to 1. Responding to the irresponsibility of institutional investors, John Harrington of Harrington Investments commented:
… if fiduciary duty, including ERISA, were truly enforced, lots of trustees, directors, administrators and managers would be in jail.
If shareowners — individual investors as well as small, medium and large institutional investors — do not start voting down the majority of compensation packages, we will have become part of the problem with executive compensation. A simple approach would be to vote against all executive compensation packages, but that would be self-defeating. If boards know compensation packages will be voted down no matter what they contain, they will have no incentive to make changes. Since say-on-pay votes are advisory, they would have no impact.
The USPX guidelines propose easy ways shareowners can review firms’ compensation packages and make reasonable say-on-pay voting decisions. The guidelines are predicated on the belief that some levels of compensation are so outlandish as to be unreasonable irrespective of a firm’s or CEO’s performance. The guidelines assist shareowners in deciding how and where to draw that line.
On November 11, 2010, the USPX released draft guidelines. We received many comments and we made several modest changes prompted by the feedback we received. Drafting the guidelines has been difficult. We have had to balance the inherent complexity of the compensation issue with the need for guidelines that are both simple and relevant.
The current guidelines apply only for compensation at large corporations. (Although during the 2011 season, I have been extending the logic of the Guidelines to small and medium corporations as well by voting down pay where NEO’s received more than median pay last year.) In future releases, we hope to extend the guidelines to small and medium corporations with more precise algorithms. In the mean time, we encourage shareowners to experiment with the guidelines and provide us with feedback on your own application and/or variation of our methodology. Please post feedback directly on the USPX website. Again, here is a direct link to the guidelines.