Explorations in Executive Compensation

This post is by Carol Bowie of the RiskMetrics Group Governance Institute.

Enhanced proxy pay disclosures, which the SEC believed would assist shareholders trying to assess the efficacy of executive compensation at their portfolio companies, have mainly underscored the elaborate and opaque nature of most pay programs. A new paper from RiskMetrics Group entitled Explorations in Executive Compensation aims to guide shareholders through the maze of terminology and complex processes being detailed in proxy statements and -– importantly -– proposes two innovative techniques that may help both investors and directors clarify disconnects between executives’ pay and shareowners’ interests.

You can view the paper, along with interactive tools that illustrate these techniques, at www.riskmetrics.com/compensation. RMG is seeking a range of feedback to help refine the paper and the potential tools.

The first proposed technique focuses on peer group benchmarking -– long suspected of contributing to spiraling pay levels that cannot be linked to consistently superior returns. Academic literature has demonstrated the importance of benchmarking in the pay process (e.g., see Faulkender and Yang’s, “Inside the Black Box: The Role and Composition of Compensation Peer Groups.” Working Paper). But RMG may be the first to create a model to consistently measure the quality of a company’s peer group in terms of its homogeneity (relative to size and industry factors) as well as the company’s rank within the peer group relative to the benchmarks it targets – identifying where a company that is the smallest in the group targets pay at the seemingly innocuous median level, for example. Do such distortions contribute to pay inflation? The data are revealing.

The second technique brings a financial markets perspective to evaluating how a CEO’s pay package is or isn’t aligned, in terms of risk, with that of shareholders. Understanding that alignment -– or misalignment -– can identify companies where incentives may be motivating a top executive to pursue strategies (e.g., high- or low-risk) that don’t fit with a shareowner’s investment goals or even the board’s declared business strategy.

RMG’s project is ambitious in scope and intent — to help bring clarity to the often thorny and always complex issue of executive pay. But it epitomizes our objective of producing thought provoking research that creates constructive dialogue on the important corporate governance issues facing investors and corporations. The goal is to create a shared language and measures that market participants can use to create, evaluate, and communicate about executive pay systems. The project is offered in the spirit of RMG’s commitment to bringing transparency, expertise and access to all financial market participants, and a vital part of the project is the feedback we get from all market participants. We invite your comments at www.riskmetrics.com/compensation.

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