Citigroup, Inc.’s New CEO Compensation Plan
Citi is finally getting CEO pay plans right! After losing their shareholder “say-on-pay” vote at the 2012 Annual Meeting of Shareholders, new Chairman Michael E. O’Neill, who just took over as Chairman last April, interviewed a large number of important shareholders. He was told that paying their CEO a $6 Million Incentive based on a two-year (2011 and 2012) cumulative pre-tax profit of $12 Billion, may sound like a good deal for the shareholders, but it was fraught with problems.
To begin, the Company had 2010 pre-tax profit of approximately $12 Billion. So, the hurdle for earning the $6 Million was half of the actual earnings in 2010. Yes, the economy has made earnings difficult to produce, and yes, Citi is trying to overcome internal problems, but shareholders were unwilling to allow a hurdle rate that low. There were other problems with the design of the Plan.
Cumulative two-year pre-tax earnings ignores the fact that the bank could grow assets at a decreasing return on each dollar and meet the earnings hurdle while increasing their capital requirements significantly. Using volume of profit as a management performance measurement always has this inherent problem. In fact, increasing volume of profit can and often does result in lower returns on equity in banking. For that reason, shareholders can lose as management earns more, and a lose-win plan is never good.
Finally, building on the last point, there is no clear link between shareholder returns and management pay in the Plan Citi was using. A common objective of executive compensation plans is to align the interests of management with those of the shareholders. The old Citigroup, Inc. Plan did the opposite to some degree. The Board of Citigroup consists of intelligent and successful people, but they got some bad advice along the way. After Chairman O’Neill spoke with shareholders, he tasked the Board’s Compensation Committee to redesign the CEO’s Compensation Plan to address the shareholders’ concerns. He was not about to get a negative “say-on-pay” vote after his first year as Chairman.
Now, in my many years of studying and designing executive compensation plans, I have yet to see the perfect plan. It just does not exist. Business is too complex to allow for such a thing, and the need to keep the plan as simple as possible is an important constraint. Yet, the new Citigroup, Inc. Management Compensation Plan addresses shareholder concerns with an elegantly simple design.
Executives will be granted units worth a certain amount in three years if certain performance is achieved. Citigroup stock must perform in the top three-quarters of a carefully selected peer group of stocks of similar companies, and Citigroup’s Return on Average Assets over the three years must beat a hurdle equal to the previous year’s actual or there will be no units rewarded. Furthermore, if the Return on Average Assets over the three years is better than the previous year by a significant percentage, then a target number of additional units will be awarded.
This design is superior to the old design because it clearly:
- aligns management’s interests with those of the shareholders and
- it is tied to relative performance compared with peers as well as the Company’s strategic goals.
There are some potential draw backs to such a plan, but the new plan is so much better than the old plan, I will not spend words on the risks in this particular blog. Perhaps in the future, we can look at some of the potential flaws. In the meantime, I say congratulations to Mr. O’Neill. I may go buy some Citigroup stock!
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