Friday, November 20, 2015

How The SEC Got DB Plans All Wrong

Yesterday, I wrote that the SEC contributed to the downfall of defined benefit (DB) plans. I promised to explain in more detail in a future post.

Well, the future is now (I wonder if anyone else ever used that line before).

As readers of this blog well know, for about 10 years, issuers of proxies under the auspices of the Securities and Exchange Commission have been required to disclose compensation for their five highest paid employees. This compensation has been disclosed in a little beast known as the Summary Compensation Table and in more detail in several other places.

Some of the disclosure makes sense. For example, the salary that an individual actually receives is what it is. There is no disputing that. Similarly, the matching contribution that an individual receives in her 401(k) plan or in the nonqualified analog is what it is.

Some of the disclosure makes less sense. Fingers point to the defined benefit disclosures.

What the rules ask be disclosed as compensation with respect to a defined benefit plan (qualified or nonqualified) is the increase, if any, in the actuarial present value of accrued benefits from one measurement date to the next. That seems simple and reasonable enough on its face, but that is exactly where, how, and why the SEC went wrong.

Let's make up some Illustrative numbers for Well Paid Executive who we will refer to as WPE.

  • Total pension accrued benefit as of 12/31/2014: $1,000,000
  • Total pension accrued benefit as of 12/31/2015: $1,100,000
  • Actuarial present value "factor" as of 12/31/2014 using 2014 discount rates and 2014 mortality table: 11.00
  • Actuarial present value "factor" as of 12/31/2015 using 2014 discount rates and 2014 mortality table: 11.50
  • Actuarial present value "factor" as of 12/31/2015 using 2015 discount rates and 2015 mortality table: 12.50
So, the actuarial present value of WPE's defined benefit as of 12/31/2014 was 11*1,000,000 or $11,000,000. 

The actuarial present value of WPE's defined benefit as of 12/31/2015 was 12.50*1,100,000 or $13,750,000.

The compensation due to defined benefits that must be reported for WPE was 13,750,000 - 11,000,000 or $2,750,000.

But, this is not an apples to apples comparison. Really Big Company (RBC) did not actually compensate WPE for the fact that interest rates on bonds declined during the year. RBC also did not actually compensate WPE for the fact that the Society of Actuaries had finished a new mortality study. 

The actuarial present value of WPE's defined benefit as of 12/31/2015 using 2014 actuarial assumptions was 11.50*1,100,000 or $12,650,000. This means that the increase, on an apples to apples basis, in the actuarial present value of WPE's defined benefits was 12,650,000 - 11,000,000 or 1,650,000. The other 1,100,000 was due to changes in actuarial assumptions and DOES NOT REFLECT THE AMOUNT THAT RBC PAID WPE DURING 2015.

The SEC's methodology has thrown proxy disclosures out of whack. In light of Dodd-Frank and its Say-on-Pay requirement and Pay Ratio Disclosure requirement, the SEC methodology puts an inappropriate burden on companies sponsoring DB plans. For some, this may signal a reason for them to exit that space ... for all the wrong reasons.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Who Put the Dagger in the Heart of Defined Benefit

What happened to defined benefit (DB) plans? We, at least those of us who can remember those times, saw a rise of them from the passage of ERISA in 1974 until the Tax Reform Act of 1986 (TRA86). They were viewed as an affordable way for companies to provide an excellent retirement benefit to their employees, especially ones that showed loyalty to those companies. In fact, most current retirees who have been retired for at least 10 years retired in part because they had those DB plans. And, companies that sponsored them and did so responsibly did not go out of business because of them.

Unfortunately, the number of DB plans has dwindled significantly. There was not a single killer, though. The list is long. It includes:

  • Congress
  • The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC)
  • The global economy
  • The e-commerce economy
  • The temporary worker for hire economy
  • The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB)
  • The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

What did Congress do that was so bad? Frankly, that crew of 535 individuals that changes in makeup from time to time did a lot. Between them, they rarely have anyone among them that knows much about DB plans. And, today, because their staffers who give them what they think is excellent guidance tend to be young, the advice that they actually get is colored by propaganda of the last 30 years or so. 

Nevertheless, Congress passed laws ... lots of them. And, lots of them included DB provision and each one was worse than the last. More than anything, though, because Congress intermingled retirement policy with tax policy so intimately, it eliminated plan sponsors' ability to fund DB plans responsibly.

Back in 1987, just one year after passage of TRA86, Congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the status quo, having existed for about a year, needed change. Included in that necessary change was limiting the amount that companies could contribute (and deduct on their tax returns) to DB plans. We were switched from a regime that was sound actuarially to one that never was and never will be.

Think about. Suppose you agree to pay someone an amount in the future. Shouldn't you be setting aside money regularly to pay for those future benefits? Of course, you should. And, DB funding used to be based on funding methods that allocated costs intelligently to the past, present, and future. But OBRA 87 began the path to dismantling those methods as Congress thought it better that DB deductions would be limited so that it could spend more money elsewhere. Thus was limited the ability of companies to responsibly fund their plans. And, as a result, as interest rates fell and there were a few significant downturns in equity markets, DB plans became [often] severely underfunded. Finally, the way these regimes worked, companies had no room to make deductible pension contributions in years that they could afford to, but were required to make large contributions in years that they could not afford them.


For those that don't know, the PBGC is a corporation, run under the auspices of the Department of Labor, that was established by ERISA to protect the pensions of participants in corporate DB plans. The PBGC was and is funded by premiums paid by plan sponsors. 

While the purpose of the PBGC has always been to protect pensions, it has behaved over the last 30 years or so as if pensions should be in place to protect the PBGC. To the PBGC's policymakers, nothing would be a greater tragedy than the PBGC projecting that it would run out of money.

So, the PBGC lobbied Congress. And, with that lobbying, the PBGC got increased ability to intervene in business and in corporate transactions. It got increased premiums. It got even high premiums for underfunded DB plans, often ones to which the sponsors wanted to make contributions when business was good, but were precluded from doing so.

What happened?

The PBGC tried to commit suicide.

You see, as the PBGC helped to make DB plans less attractive for employers, employers froze entry to or terminated DB plans. This meant that there were fewer participants in DB plans on whom premiums were paid to the PBGC. Companies that couldn't terminate DB plans were the ones that had plans that were so underfunded that they didn't have enough money to fully fund them. Often, the PBGC had to assume responsibility for those plans. So, as the PBGC incurred more liabilities, it also got less premium revenue. It's awfully tough to run  a business that way.

Various Economies

As the US economy has become more global, more electronic, and more temporary, DB plans have lost some of their appeal, When a company was competing primarily with other US companies, providing excellent retirement benefits was important to attracting and retaining good employees. But, non-US companies didn't have to do that and as competition from offshore became fierce, retirement benefits became less of an issue.

And, as employers began to show less loyalty to their employees and were less worried about retaining them, retirement benefits lost some of their appeal. The prophecy was somewhat self-fulfilling; as retirement benefits lost some appeal, they continued to lose appeal.


Accounting for DB plans use to be more cash based than accrual based. In 1985, the FASB gave us Standards Number 87 and 88 that instructed companies how to account for DB plans. Previous to then, companies used Accounting Principles Bulletin (APB) 8, under which most companies expensed as part of P&L their cash contributions. The FASB saw this as incorrect.

So, we moved from a regime under which pension expense was somewhat controllable (a company by building up a surplus in good times could contribute less in bad times and thereby have some control over their pension expense) to one that had components that became quite volatile as the economy did. CFOs abhor volatility and thus had one more reason to not want DB plans.


The SEC didn't get deeply involved in pensions until recent times. But, when they did, they got them all wrong.

Primarily, the SEC's involvement with pensions has been in corporate proxies. For the last 10 or more years, companies have been required to provide as part of their proxy materials a table of Summary Annual Compensation for (generally) their top five paid employees. Included in compensation is the increase in actuarial present value from one year to the next of defined benefit pensions both qualified and nonqualified. 

Often times, that increase is largely due to a decrease in underlying discount rates or more recently, to a change in mortality assumptions. Yes, according to SEC rules, when the Society of Actuaries publishes a new, more up-to-date mortality table, that represents compensation to executives. And, of course, the media loves to look at those numbers as if someone had written checks for those amounts in those years to those executives. And, some investors look at those numbers and want to use them to explain how the companies in which they invest overpay their executives. (This is not to say that they don't overpay their executives, but when a large piece of the overpayment is simply due to year over year changes in actuarial assumptions, the logic is bad.) 

There are better ways. Actuaries understand them. And, actuaries, in some cases, have tried to explain them to the SEC. But, the SEC has chosen to listen more to attorneys, accountants, lobbyists, and unions. They carry more sway and are more emotional about this issue, but generally speaking, they don't get it.

I'll write about a better way in another post soon.

But, in the meantime, now you know where the dagger came from. DB plans use to allow people to look forward to retirement. For most, they don't anymore.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Identifying the Wrong Vendor

When we seek a consultant or any sort of vendor for that matter, there are signs that we have identified a good one. Most of us can recognize some of those signs, but they don't always jump off the page at us.

Often, just as important is the ability to recognize the wrong vendor or consultant. In fact, personally, I might rather miss out on the most qualified so long as I know I am not getting someone who is not qualified at all.

I could highlight some things to look for or even make a list, but I'm going to take a different approach. Everyone seems to like illustrative stories. So, let me give you one that I recently encountered where I'll change the names and fact patterns a bit to protect the innocent ... and the guilty.

A mid-sized company (let's call them National Widget or NW) issued a request for proposal (RFP) for assistance with developing the components of an employment agreement for a potential new CEO. As is good practice, they issued the RFP to five prospective consultants (five is not necessarily THE right number, but it is certainly in a range of reasonable) asking among other things for

  • Staffing
  • Qualifications
  • Experience
  • Timing
  • Fees
  • Project methodology
A key place that National Widget went wrong is that the three people making the decision on choosing a vendor didn't really have experience in this area. Of the five companies that received the RFP (all responded), three were name-brand firms, one was a niche firm specializing in consulting on executive issues, and one was a firm (WCDA (I'll explain the acronym later) that had done good work for NW on a health insurance related project.

I thought that three of the proposals (two from the name-brand firms and one from the niche firm) were good enough that if I were choosing, I would have been comfortable with them. Let's consider the other one.

Big Firm B (BFB) came in with the lowest fee quote. In fact, it was the lowest by a wide margin. The proposed staffing on the assignment consisted of two relatively junior consultants. Their bios pitched that they had MBAs from top-5 programs. When the proposal discussed experience, it didn't mention any assignments related to CEOs. It also didn't reference any assignments related to employment agreements. And, the proposal was filled with fancy graphics laying out the project methodology and timeline. What is was missing though was anything that would have convinced me that the two young rising stars actually understood the assignment. Fortunately, NW chose not to engage BFB. 

As I see it, there were a few red flags here:
  • If there is one fee quote that is far below the rest, consider whether the people preparing that quote understand the entire assignment.
  • Why are they quoting that low? Are they overly tightly scoping and then going to nickel and dime you on extras to make it back?
  • When a proposal that doesn't need pictures and graphics to explain itself is filled with them, what are the bidders using the visuals to hide?
  • Does the staffing chosen seem to fit the proposed assignment?
Now let's consider the WCDA proposal. 

It was delivered by the project lead from the health insurance project. It spent two full pages telling NW about all the money that WCDA had saved NW on their health care costs. It played up the fact that WCDA has more than 50 employees who have passed their FINRA Series 7 exam. We learned that they also have 11 employees with PhDs. Further, of the three people assigned to this project, two would be chosen from among that group with PhDs (I'm not knocking attainment of a PhD; that's a tremendous achievement.). Finally, the proposal from WCDA pointed out many of the different types of projects that their firm had completed in the last twelve months including a business valuation on behalf of a private equity firm, development of a new e-commerce platform for a new fantasy football oriented company, and a conjoint analysis of employee preferences related to volunteerism opportunities. 

Note the red flags:
  • Most of what was in the WCDA proposal was unrelated to this assignment.
  • WCDA highlighted credentials and qualifications that were irrelevant to development of an employment agreement.
  • WCDA led with a reminder that it had helped to save NW money in an unrelated area.
The bad news was that NW hired WCDA. What I didn't tell you was that the closing sentence of WCDA's proposal was, " For NW, We Can Do Anything."

Well, WCDA may think they can do anything, but the fact is that they didn't understand this assignment. In the recommendations that they delivered, WCDA spent a full page explaining that they are 
  • Registered Investment Advisors
  • Chartered Arbitrators
  • Fellows of the World Coffee Drinkers Association (there actually is a World Coffee Drinkers Association, but I chose it for the WCDA acronym)
WCDA's recommendation report was long. It needed to be to justify the level of fees. It contained lots of filler, or fluff, if you prefer. What is was short on was substance. That shouldn't come as a surprise, though, because WCDA's proposal was also short on substance.

The end result was that National Widget couldn't use the work that WCDA had done for them. They had to go out and pay a second firm to do the work properly. The red flags were waving right in National Widget's face, but they chose not to see them.

Don't make the same mistake. Engage qualified people who understand what you are looking for.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

CFO Priorities and Benefits and Compensation

CFO magazine did their annual survey of the priorities of chief financial officers recently. I read their article summarizing the findings from the survey and considered what this might mean for benefits and compensation.

Before I go on to my main topic, however, I need to bring up a few of the issues that I found near the bottom of the article. Three priorities that the article highlighted were written communication, networking with peers and presenting to large groups. Frankly, these are not just CFO priorities; they should be priorities for every professional in our 2015 world, and I was absolutely thrilled to see written communication in the list.

Returning to the main points of the article, I point out some of the top priorities that are more day-to-day for CFOs.

  • Precision and efficiency in cash forecasting
  • Budgeting
  • Balanced scorecards
  • Margins
  • Risk management
  • Performance management
Additionally, and in many cases perhaps more important, but less relevant for this blog is cybersecurity.

Let's also consider what some of the main elements of traditional benefits and compensation packages look like (with some grouping at my discretion).

  • Health and wellness benefits
  • Retirement benefits
  • Other traditional welfare benefits
  • Feelgood benefits
  • Base pay
  • Short-term incentives (bonus)
  • Long-term incentives (often equity)
Health benefits are now essentially a requirement. Either you provide them or pay a fine under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). But, companies have lots of techniques that they can use to control costs. Popular today are high-deductible health plans (HDHP) where oftentimes, companies contribute fixed amounts to health savings accounts (HSAs) to help employees pay for costs up to those deductibles. Among the major advantages of these designs are that companies do a much better job of locking in their costs. In other words, more costs are known and far fewer costs are variable or unknown. 

On the subject of retirement benefits, I'm going to give you a shocker. In matching those CFO priorities, the single worst sort of retirement plan that a company can sponsor is a traditional 401(k) plan with a company match. That's right -- it's the worst! Why is that? In a 401(k) plan, the amount of money that a company spends is almost entirely dependent upon employee behavior. If you, as an employer, communicate the value of the plan, employees defer more and that costs you more. Most companies budget a number for their cash outlay for the 401(k) plan. Very few, in my experience, look at potential variability. One that does and that I worked with on this a number of years ago, estimates that between best case and worst case, that the difference in their cash outlay could be in the range of several hundred million dollars. That is a lot of money.

So, what is better?

Believe it or not, I can come up with lots of rationales (much beyond the scope of this post) for why having a defined benefit plan as a company's primary retirement vehicle is superior to using a 401(k) plan. Understand, I'm not talking about just any DB plan. But, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) opened the door for new types of DB plans that either were not expressly permitted previously or, in other cases, that were generally not considered feasible. Think about a cash balance plan using a market return interest crediting rate with plan investments selected to properly hedge fluctuation. Cash flow becomes predictable. Volatility generally goes away. Budgeting is simple. The plan can be designed to not negatively affect margins.

I may write more in a future post, but for now, suffice it to say that this design that has not yet caught on in the corporate world needs some real consideration.

How about compensation? 

Base pay is the easiest to budget for. If you do have a budget and commit to not spending outside of that budget, base pay is pretty simple to keep within your goals. 

Incentive compensation is trickier. While many organizations have "bonus pools", they also tend to have formulaic incentive programs. So, what happens when the some of the formulaic incentives exceeds the amount in the bonus pool? Either you blow your budget or you make people particularly unhappy. There is little that will cause a top performer to leave your company faster than having her calculate that her bonus is to be some particular number of dollars only to learn that it got cut back to 70% of that number because the company didn't budget properly.

Perhaps it is better to assign an individual a number of bonus credits based on their performance and then compare their number of credits to the total number of credits allocated to determine a ratio of the total bonus pool awarded to that individual. After all, isn't the performance of the company roughly equal to the sum pf the performances of individuals and teams? And, if the company has a bad year, isn't it impossible that every individual and team exceeded expectations? Be honest, you know that has happened at lots of companies and the companies don't know what to do or how to explain it.

There is lots more to be said, but I want to keep it brief for now. If you have questions on some of the specifics, please post here or on Twitter or LinkedIn in reply to my post or tweet. And, if you have one of these areas on which you'd like to see me expand in a future post, let me know about that as well.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

30 Years Ago Today

Thirty years ago, I started on a journey. I arrived at a new job with a firm that no longer exists in the form that it was in back in 1985. Hewitt Associates (HA as it was referred to internally) was a consulting firm whose primary business was actuarial consulting on defined benefit pension plans in the US. It was a partnership. The number of firms like that that still exist has dwindled. In that size range of company, their number has dwindled to zero.

In any event, I was embarking on a career as an actuary. Frankly, I had no idea what I would be doing in that career. I had taken the first two actuarial exams because my starting salary depended on them. One was basic college math (mostly calculus) and the other was probability and statistics, so I thought I would be doing a lot of math in my career. I guess I have, but rarely that type of math.

I was going to be working on corporate pension plans. I didn't know what a pension plan was. I didn't know much else about what I was going to be doing either. I recall a friend asking me just the day before what I was going to be doing. I had no idea.

What I do recall is that I ran a proprietary computer program on a mainframe computer. As I was instructed to do, I took a lot of numbers from the output and put them in rows and columns on large green ledger sheets. Mostly, I added them vertically and I was very good at that. I then took the sums and placed them on other worksheets where I got to do addition and subtraction mostly. Sometimes, I amortized these numbers over time, usually using an HP-12C. It's still the calculator of choice in the profession.

Eventually, I took many of these numbers and used them to mark up something that I learned was called an actuarial report. My markup went to this ancient-sounding thing called a typing pool where a group of really good typists would make my ugly handwritten draft look pretty. They used another ancient device known as an electric typewriter.

I don't quite do the same things anymore, but some of it is still related to corporate pension plans. As time passed, my career moved from doing the grunt work to consulting based oftentimes on what others did.

It's a career that has taken me through highs and lows. I've made some of the finest friends a person could ever imagine. And, along the way, I think I've gotten pretty good at what I do. My profession has been good enough to honor me a few times. That was pretty cool.

One thing that has not changed at all about what I do is the respect and actual greatness of the profession While we are joked about as being boring nerds, actuaries are a rare, yet important breed. We tend to look at problems differently than most and that view that we take is often incredibly effective.

I'm proud of the profession. I'll take this moment to say that I'm pretty proud of what I have accomplished, too.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How to Handle Your Pay Ratio Disclosures

This is an article that I wrote for Bloomberg BNA that was published last Friday, August 21. Note that you may not reproduce this article without express written permission from BNA.

Reproduced with permission from Pension & Benefits Daily, 162 PBD, 08/21/2015. Copyright 2015 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033)

Pay Ratio Rule: Practical Tips for Making the Best of a Bad Disclosure Day


I t’s been about five years since Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. In response to the financial crisis that escalated in 2008, legislators sought to put more controls on primarily the larger financial institutions that do business in the U.S. But, buried in this law was a little-debated provision sitting in Section 953(b). It has become known as the ‘‘pay ratio’’ rule.

On its surface, the pay ratio rule seems innocuous. Filers of proxies are to disclose the ratio of the compensation of the median-paid employee of the company to that of the CEO. However, as many have learned, this may be more difficult and more inflammatory than it seems.

In early August 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a final rule, effective for proxies for fiscal years beginning after 2016, explaining exactly who needs to disclose this ratio and how this is to be done. To its credit, the SEC tried its best to satisfy the needs of those who view this ratio as an important data point for a company and to satisfy companies that complained of potentially large expenditures to produce what they view as a seemingly meaningless number.

If what you need are the technical details specific to your company as to how these calculations are to be done, you can find summaries all over the Internet. Securities or executive compensation counsel will be more than happy to help you. What you may have more difficulty finding are explanations of how to prepare for that 2018 proxy season and what strategies your company may employ as permitted by the final rule.

Key Elements

Before we dive into that, it’s important to review some of the key elements of the final rule, particularly in places where either the SEC has made changes from the proposed rule or where it has afforded employers certain options.

  • While the statute tells us that the number disclosed shall be the compensation of the median employee divided by that of the Principal Executive Officer (CEO for our purposes), both the proposed and final rules specify that it is in fact the reciprocal of that (a positive integer is intended). 
  • Generally, all employees of the parent company and subsidiaries included in the consolidated financials must be included, but:  
    • who is an employee may be determined as of any representative date within three months of the end of the fiscal year; 
    • compensation for full-time employees may be annualized, but part-time, temporary and seasonal workers’ pay may not be annualized; 
    • workers from countries with privacy rules that may preclude obtaining the necessary data may be excluded (if you exclude one worker from a country, you must exclude all of them); and 
    • companies may exclude all workers from additional countries up to a total of 5 percent of the total company employee population. In doing so, first the employees excluded due to privacy laws are counted. If that gets the company to 5 percent or more, then there are no more exclusions. If not, then additional countries may be excluded so long as the total of privacy exclusions and selected exclusions does not exceed 5 percent of the total number of employees of the company. 
  • Determination of the median-paid employee has been simplified: 
    • solely for purposes of determining who is the median employee, the company may look to compensation amounts from payroll or tax records; and 
    • once a median employee is chosen, the company may use the same employee as the median for two more years so long as there have not been changes to the company’s population or pay practices significant enough to make that determination unreasonable. 
  • Companies may apply cost-of-living adjustments to equalize pay between countries. s Companies may add to their disclosures so long as the additions are no more prominent than the required disclosure. All that gives companies some useful options, but with options comes analysis to determine what to do and where the data will come from. 
  • Determine which countries the company operates in. For those countries, determine: 
    • whether privacy laws preclude obtaining necessary data, 
    • what percentage of employees is excluded due to privacy laws, and  
    • if less than 5 percent, are there other countries that it would be possible and beneficial to exclude? 
  • What will it take to get payroll or tax records from all the countries? Alert people responsible for them in each foreign country now as to what you will need. 
  • Consider whether the value in using cost-of-living adjustments outweighs the cost of doing so. For some countries, good cost-of-living data may be very difficult to obtain. For others, while the national cost-of-living index may be high or low, the cost in the areas in which your employees work may be very different.
  • Consider the benefits of sampling employees rather than using the whole population. Based on the descriptions of sampling techniques described by the SEC in both the proposed and final rules, for most companies, this exercise will not be worth the trouble of understanding the sampling techniques. 
Perhaps the most important decision that a company will make regarding the pay ratio is what it chooses to disclose. Some companies won’t have to worry about it every year, but in some years these pay ratios are going to be very large. Even if the company’s board of directors feels certain that CEO compensation at their company is reasonable, the optics will be bad.

Good consultative thinking can be very helpful here. Let’s consider a few possible situations.


Company A – Many Seasonal Employees.

Company A (calendar-year filer) does significant business around the holidays. In fact, its workforce is typically about three times as large between September 15 and January 15 as it is the rest of the year. Because of that, the median-paid employee of Company A is likely to be a seasonal employee (recall that companies are not permitted to annualize the compensation of seasonal employees). Additionally, those seasonal employees likely never meet the requirements to participate in most of Company A’s benefit programs including its pension plan. This pay ratio is going to be high. Company A should consider making an additional disclosure showing a comparison of the compensation of its CEO to that of its median full-time employee. While this won’t change the required number, it will improve the optics significantly.

Company B – U.S. Pension Only.

Company B is a multinational organization with significant employees in countries around the globe. Most of the U.S. workforce is well-paid, making it unlikely that the median employee will be from the U.S. Company B has provided both a broad-based and a nonqualified pension plan in the U.S. for many years. In most of the countries in which it operates, providing pensions is not the norm and doing so would make Company B less competitive. Because the increase in the actuarial present value of accrued pensions is part of the calculation of ‘‘annual total compensation,’’ the pay ratio is going to be larger than Company B might like and its board thinks the required ratio is not representative. Company B should consider providing a ratio for the U.S. only and a ratio without regard to pensions as supplemental disclosures.

Company C – Excellent Performance Leads to Larger-Than-Usual Incentive Payouts.

Because of extraordinary performance over the period ending Dec. 31, 2016, Company C’s executives received much larger-than-normal cash incentive payouts (short-term incentive) and equity grants and awards (long-term incentive) in 2017. The pay ratio here is going to be very high, but the board’s rationale is that the CEO deserved it. There may be many readers of the pay ratio who don’t agree. Perhaps they won’t look at the reasons for the high pay ratio, but simply the number itself.

Company C might consider a number of options. First, there might be a narrative describing why certain elements of compensation were as high as they were. Second, Company C might disclose what the pay ratio would have been had the company (and CEO) merely met goals for the year rather than exceeding them. Third, Company C might disclose what the pay ratio would have been had its CEO received his average incentive payouts for the last three years or five years. Any or all of these will help to lend some perspective to the otherwise high pay ratio.

Company D – Varying Global Economies.

Company D has its operations primarily in the U.S. and in South America. It provides broad-based and nonqualified pensions in virtually every country in which it operates. During 2017, the economy in South America was vastly different from that in the U.S. As a result, while interest rates dipped in the U.S., they rose significantly in every country in South America in which Company D operates. This combination produced massive increases in pension values in the U.S. (for executives and for rank-and-file), but decreases (zero for annual total compensation purposes) in all of South America. Since pensions are a significant portion of actual compensation for Company D’s South American employees, their compensation will appear understated for 2017 while the CEO’s compensation will appear overstated.

Company D should consider several additional disclosure options:

  • Disclose a ratio for its U.S. employees only,  
  • Disclose a ratio assuming that pension discount rates had not changed in any country, or 
  • Disclose a ratio without regard to pensions. 
Company E – Highly Diversified Global Business.

Company E is probably the most complex situation we will face. In the last few years leading up to and including 2017, it has generated a significant part of its revenue and most of its profits from its financial services division, which operates mostly in the U.S. Its CEO has to operate like the leader of a large bank and is therefore compensated commensurate with that. But, as a hedge against cyclical issues, Company E also operates in a variety of other industries and in multiple countries. The industries that are the most labor-intensive also employ the majority of their workers in low-paid third world countries. And, to the extent that Company E is involved in those industries in the U.S., its workers are largely unionized.

Company E has considered sampling to simplify the process. However, upon an examination of the rules, Company E realizes that it will have to do samples of each of its industry groupings in each country in which it operates. While it might reduce the number of employees that it has to evaluate, the expense of getting through the samplings outweighs the gains.

Company E realizes that its pay ratio is going to look very high. Philosophically, it is fine with that as its board feels certain that it is justified. But with multiple union contracts coming up for bargaining, Company E also knows that the unions will use the pay ratios to wage multiple media campaigns against Company E and its CEO.

In its disclosures that will go along with its required pay ratio disclosure, Company E needs to consider all of this. Here are some of the disclosures that Company E might make:

  • U.S.-only pay ratio, 
  • Disclosure of median pay for a typical employee in each of the U.S. unions with a breakout highlighting the company’s large expenditure on union pensions,  
  • Salaried-employee-only pay ratio, or 
  • Additional pay ratio compared to the union employee’s median pay encompassing elements not normally included in annual total compensation such as health care expenditure. 
Each of these additional disclosures has a cost associated with producing it. But, in Company E’s view, not producing ratios like this may be more costly than the hard costs to generate them.

Now What?

If you happen to be a part of one of the fortunate companies for whom this disclosure will neither be a calculational nor public relations problem, then your job should be easy. If, on the other hand, your company is closer to one of these more problematic situations, then you might have your work cut out for you.

Chances are that most in your company will not focus on this until after the end of fiscal year 2017. That may be okay, or it may not. Developing some of the ratios that we’ve discussed may be time-consuming and data-intensive. Trying to do that at the last minute may not be advisable.

Similarly, for a number of companies, this will be more than a calculation. It will be a strategy. Given the potential cost in investor relations and perhaps a battle over say-on-pay, it might be wise to have someone independently thinking about these issues. While using consultants haphazardly can create problems that were never there instead of solving them, here using a consultant who has thought through the issues and can help your company do the same would likely be money well spent.

You know that your company pays both rank-and-file and executives appropriately. Now you have to ensure that you manage the message so that all the interested observers know that as well.

Friday, August 7, 2015

SEC Finalizes Pay Ratio Rule -- Read the Plain English Description Here

Wednesday, after much controversy over the last five years, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released its final rule under Dodd-Frank Section 953(b) sometimes known as the Pay Ratio Rule. I have friends who are executive compensation attorneys and if you need legal advice on this rule, I can recommend any number of them to you, but I am going to write about it from a practical standpoint in plain English. What happened?

First, I'd like to commend the SEC. The statute on this rule has been very controversial. The SEC, in my opinion, has taken an approach that remains largely faithful to the exact wording of the statute and fully faithful to the intent of the statute (I'm not here to argue if the statute is worthwhile) while at the same time being sensitive to the concerns of employers with regard to the potential cost of compliance. It's rare that a government agency handles such a quandary this well.

Back in 2013, the SEC released a proposed rule on this topic. Since that time, the SEC received 287,400 comments on the proposed rule. More than 285,000 of them were form letters, but that still means that roughly 2,000 people took the time to write customized comments. To the credit of the Commissioners, they appear to have considered every last one of them. What they have crafted is practical, assuming that you find the result of the work practical.

What does the rule say? Here we go.

In its definitive proxy, each registrant shall disclose three items (at least since the rule says that the disclosure may be augmented):

  • The pay (as defined for proxy purposes) of the PEO (generally known as the CEO or Chief Executive Officer),
  • The pay (same definition) of the median-compensated employee of the employer, and
  • The ratio of the first item to the second expressed as some number (integer will work) to 1.
Identifying the median compensated employee can be a very costly process. Consider a company with 1001 employees. The median compensated will be the one whose compensation is more than that of 500 others and less than that of 500 others. In order to determine this (by the letter of the law), one would need to determine the annual total compensation (that's the proxy compensation) or ATC for each of the 1001. They would need to be ranked and then we would find the 501st person. That is a lot of work.

The final rule allows for two significant simplifications for purposes of determining the median employee:
  • Companies may choose to use sampling techniques in order to reasonably determine who the median paid employee is, and
  • Companies may use and consistently applied measure of compensation from payroll or tax records.
While the first of those may be more trouble than it is worth, the second should be a big help to lots of companies.

Further, once a company establishes a median employee, it may use that same employee for three years provided that there have not been significant changes (undefined term) in the compensation practices or the makeup of employees. If that employee terminates, then the company may reasonably select a similarly situated employee as a replacement.

Many commenters were concerned about the disclosures for multi-national companies especially those with significant numbers of employees in lower cost-of-living countries. Certainly, for example, $50,000 per year goes further in Kyrgyzstan than it does in the US. The final rule allows companies to adjust (on a nation-by-nation basis) compensation for cost-of-living differences.

Calculating proxy compensation can be cumbersome. It includes other than just cash compensation. So, for companies with defined benefit plans and broad-based equity compensation arrangements, it is entirely possible that multiple outside experts would need to be engaged. While that remains the case, the final rule allows companies to make reasonable estimates of components of compensation.

The statute makes clear that an employee is every employee worldwide, whether full-time, part-time, temporary, or seasonal of the controlled group. The final rule allows for all of these simplifications or adjustments:
  • A determination date applied consistently within 3 months of the end of the fiscal year
  • Only subsidiaries included in the consolidated financial statements need be considered
  • Employees where data may be unattainable due to national (or EU) privacy rules may be excluded
  • De minimis numbers of employees (up to 5% in total) may be excluded on a country by country basis
Let's look in more detail at those last two. Suppose the number of employees excluded under the privacy rule exception exceeds 5%. Then you are done with your exclusions. On the other hand, if your privacy exclusions are exactly 2% of your total population, then you may exclude other countries whose total employee population is less than an additional 3% of your total population. If, for example, you can't find another country with fewer than 3% of your total employees, then you are done with your exclusions.

In preparing these disclosures, companies will make lots of assumptions, simplifications, and estimates. All must be disclosed.

In somewhat of a gift to employers, additional disclosures and ratios are permitted, but not required so long as the additional disclosures and ratios are no more prominent than the required ones. I think this could be useful.

Consider a company with its management team and sales force in the US, but the bulk of its production facilities in third world countries (I'm not weighing in on whether this is a good or responsible practice or not). Because manual labor is particularly inexpensive in Burkina Faso, for example, Everybody's Favorite Company (EFC) has an extremely high pay ratio, say 10000 to 1. Its CEO had total compensation of $10 million and most employees in Burkina Faso earned only $1000. And further, EFC can't find cost-of-living data for Burkina Faso, so it is not able to do that adjustment. EFC is perhaps rightfully concerned about its pay ratio disclosure, so it elects to do a second pay ratio disclosure limited specifically to US employees. In this case, the ratio declines to 100 to 1.

A second company with a December 31 fiscal year end,, does a massive holiday business. As a result, Everest has a high pay ratio reflective of its hiring each year of seasonal employees. In fact, in a typical year, Everest has more than twice as many employees from September 1 through December 31 than it does the rest of the year. As a result, Everest reports a pay ratio of 750 to 1. Everest doesn't like this, so it chooses to determine an additional ratio of all but seasonal employees. The company is much more pleased to find that this ratio is only 175 to 1.

Generally, companies are required to report the pay ratio for any fiscal year beginning on or after January 1, 2017 (there are exceptions for certain new filers and emerging companies). This means that the first required disclosures (companies are encouraged to disclose before then) will generally be in the early months of 2018.

The final rule is long and complex. There are many legal issues around it and for those you should contact an attorney. 

There are also issues that are far more consultative in nature. They will generally require quantitative acumen, actuarial knowledge, and comfort with executive compensation, as well as a focus on business issues. For those, you should just click here.