Performance-Based Long Term Incentives – Not Just a Best Practice

Executive compensation and performance-based pay continue to be a hot topics in board rooms and in the press. Corporate directors should be wary of compensation plans that can distort the pay for performance equation. Two pending SEC rule changes may impact how public companies implement executive compensation in the future: the Pay for Performance disclosure, and the CEO pay ratio. Where CEO pay and company performance are misaligned, proxy reporting will raise a red flag for shareholders and investor groups. Large pay packages that result in problematic CEO pay ratios (the ratio of CEO pay to employee median pay) have been key topics in the press as companies anticipate the implementation of the SEC’s new pay ratios rules.

Strategic PlanningAs the deadline nears for implementing these new pay disclosure rules, public boards and executives should focus on the effectiveness of all elements of executive pay. Since a large part of CEO compensation is long-term incentives, typically stock-based or plan-based compensation, these plans should be closely evaluated. While public companies will be concerned with the new pay rules, private companies will also be interested since pay for performance is a best practice. Consequently, long-term incentive pay will be a focus in the near term.

Historically, long-term incentives were granted to retain executive talent; executive retention is greatly enhanced when adding a vesting feature and a forfeiture clause for executives who leaves before vesting. Retention in the form of long-term incentives generally were implemented using stock grants, primarily in the form of restricted stock and RSUs with vesting after three or five year’s continuous service. Stock options could also be used to help with retention; however they often lose their effectiveness when the stock price drops and options fall underwater. While these types of grants are effective retention tools, they lack the focus that is generated with performance-based incentives.

We believe that a meaningful way to measure the effectiveness of long-term incentive compensation is to evaluate whether the incentives reward senior executives for meeting and sustaining the strategic goals of the company. While service vested stock grants have an element of performance, too often vesting of large stock grants occur during a time when the company’s performance is declining. This misalignment of pay and performance can send a bad message to shareholders and regulators. A better message to send occurs when a large block of stock vests when the company achieves a key success or during a period of excellent performance. For this reason, we believe that long-term incentive pay should be primarily tied to company performance that is linked to long-term, sustained improvement in shareholder value.

Naturally, these incentives should be linked to the executive team’s success against the main goals outlined in the company’s strategic plan. This can be a complicated task. Executive teams are leery of setting performance expectations too far into the future due to the uncertainty of the business environment. The need to set goals that are measurable and meaningful is a significant factor in a plan’s success. A few key goals can be far more meaningful than a long list of performance objectives that may be difficult to track and fraught with confusion about final outcomes. Ultimately long-term incentive plans should (1) be simple enough to communicate to multiple constituencies, (2) reflect the expectations of the board over a long time period and (3) align with sustained and improved total shareholder value.

However, long-term incentives tied to key performance objectives often compete against the desire to meet annual incentive plan goals. Focus on short-term earnings performance and near-term outcomes to satisfy investor groups can be a detriment to achieving a long-term strategy. For public companies, too much emphasis is placed on quarterly results at the expense of meeting longer term objectives. Private companies have less pressure, but the tension between short-term performance and longer term strategic objectives still exists. Successfully implementing performance-based long term incentive plans is one way to counter the pressure of shorter term thinking.

For example, most financial institutions are experiencing pressure to boost their earnings because of declining revenues due to low interest rates. Could this lead bank executives to seek higher interest rate loans with greater risks or higher market concentration in order to generate higher rates and more fees? Could this pressure to boost earnings cause executives to drift away from the long-term strategy of the bank? Of course it could; this is reasonable outcome when pressure on short-term earnings overshadows the long term strategy of a bank; this focus could be a problem for future success. Our suggestion to counter this short-term behavior is to establish long-term incentives linked to an emphasis on loan portfolios that are more consistent with the bank’s strategic direction.

So what are some of the key issues to address if you want to implement a performance-based long-term incentive plan? As a first step, do you have an up-to-date and effective strategic plan? If not, start here. Next, you need to decide whether stock or cash is the best way to provide executive incentives. Also, determining the best time frame for vesting is another important step. We think a minimum of three to five years makes sense. However, you may want to tie the vesting to a major business initiative or a future liquidity event; these events don’t always occur on a fixed schedule. Using multiple grants (annual or biennial) can add another favorable dimension to the plan design. Having rolling vesting dates can help sustain the plan’s long-term momentum. These plan design features and many other plan design decisions must be made when implementing a new plan or moving the emphasis away from service vesting toward performance vesting.

In summary, performance-based long-term incentive plans are a recognized best practice among industry experts and corporate governance groups like ISS and Glass Lewis. With the SEC implementing new rules that will spotlight pay for performance and CEO pay, this may be an excellent time to evaluate your current executive compensation plans to make sure that executive pay is closely aligned with company performance. Finally, directors and executives should examine both the annual bonus plan and the long-term incentive plan to validate that these plans are fulfilling the long-term strategic needs of the company.

Author J. Henry Oehmann can be reached at Henry.Oehmann@MatthewsYoung.com

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