Shareholder Activism and Executive Compensation

Jeremy L. Goldstein is founder of Jeremy L. Goldstein & Associates, LLC. This post is based on a publication by Mr. Goldstein. Related research from the Program on Corporate Governance about CEO pay includes Paying for Long-Term Performance (discussed on the Forum here) and the book Pay without Performance: The Unfulfilled Promise of Executive Compensation, both by Lucian Bebchuk and Jesse Fried.

In today’s environment in which all public companies—no matter their size, industry, or performance—are potential targets of shareholder activists, companies should review their compensation programs with an eye toward making sure that the programs take into account the potential effects of the current wave of shareholder activism. In this regard, we have provided below some considerations for public company directors and management teams.

“Say on Pay”: Early Warning Sign

Low levels of support for a company’s “say on pay” vote can serve as an early warning sign for both companies and activists that shareholders may have mixed feelings about management’s performance or a board’s oversight. An activist attack following a failed vote may be particularly inopportune for target companies because a failed vote can result in tension between managements and boards. Moreover, activists will not hesitate to use pay as a wedge issue, even if there is nothing wrong with a company’s pay program. Companies should get ahead of potential activists by (1) understanding how their pay programs diverge from standards of shareholders and proxy advisors, (2) developing a robust, year-round program of shareholder engagement by management and independent directors, and (3) considering appropriate changes to pay and governance structures if advisable. Companies that are the most aggressive at shareholder outreach and develop the best relationships with both the investment and the governance representatives of their major holders will be best able to address an activist attack if it occurs.

What Pay Programs Do Activists Like to See?

While we have seen several recent situations in which certain prominent activist firms have expressed a preference for programs that emphasize return on invested capital, economic profit and/or return on equity rather than earnings per share or revenue-related targets, there is not a general type of pay program favored by most activists. In fact, few activist “white papers” even address executive pay and those that do usually only cite negative reports by proxy advisory firms and make vague reference to pay for performance disconnects in an effort to use pay as a wedge issue. The best way for a company to withstand these criticisms is to make sure that its pay programs reward executives for achievement of stated strategic and operational goals and that such goals are consistent with the company’s attempt to achieve sustainable, long-term growth.

Are Your Employees Protected if an Activist Attacks?

All too often change of control protections in compensation plans do not trigger under circumstances in which an activist is most likely to take control of a company in the current environment. Amending compensation programs—particularly change of control and severance protections—in the midst of an activist situation can often be difficult if not, from time-to-time as a practical matter, nearly impossible. Companies should therefore review the change of control provisions of their compensation programs on a clear day to ensure that they fulfill their intended purpose. In this regard, we note that many change of control programs do not trigger if an activist takes control of the majority of a board by reason of the settlement of an actual or threatened proxy contest. This can be a critical problem, given the number of activists that have recently attempted to gain control of at least a majority of board seats and given that ISS is increasingly showing support for “control” slates.

Do Your Pay Programs Work if an Activist Agenda is Implemented?

Activists pushing for changes at public companies most frequently advocate in favor of returns of capital through extraordinary dividends and share buybacks; divestitures through sales, spin-offs or otherwise; and sales of the entire company. Companies should review their pay programs to ensure that they work properly if any of these events occur, regardless of whether the activist actually obtains seats on the board or control of the company. Specifically, companies should take measures to ensure that (1) adjustment provisions of stock plans permit adjustments to awards in the event of both extraordinary dividends and divestitures, (2) all plans are clear as to whether an employee ceasing to be part of the affiliated group of companies in a divestiture will be treated as a terminated employee for purposes of the relevant plans, (3) performance goals still work after extraordinary dividends, the divestiture of a major business and, particularly if there are per share performance metrics, a share buyback, and (4) performance plans are designed in a manner to minimize the effect of such events and related adjustments on the deductibility of compensation under Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code. Finally, while it has become less fashionable in recent years to focus on change in control protections, companies should, in light of the robust activist and M&A environment, have their change of control programs reviewed on a clear day by advisors who are experienced with how these programs should work when an actual change of control is threatened or occurs.

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In today’s environment, all public companies are susceptible to attack from activist investors. As part of their advanced preparation efforts for activist attacks, companies should review their executive compensation programs to ensure that they understand any features of their programs that can be exploited by activists in winning the hearts and minds of shareholders or are likely to function improperly if and when an activist strikes. After careful review, companies should consider whether they wish to make any appropriate changes.

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