Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Companies Can Piss Off Shareholders

I thought this might be a provocative title for a blog post: "How Companies Can Piss Off Shareholders". Frankly, if you are expecting a full discourse on all the ways this can be done, you've come to the wrong place. The seminal piece on this is undoubtedly the ISS (Institutional Shareholder Services) 2011-2012 Policy Survey Summary of Results. And, for that matter, if you really want a more thoughtful analysis of the entire survey, I would direct you to Mike Melbinger's latest blog post on this topic.

ISS would never say anything like the title of this post. And, Mike Melbinger, while I love his blog, tends to be more politically correct than yours truly. If you came here to read about this, then you are looking to see someone fall. Knives in the back are fair game. So are sucker punches below the belt. Here, the only rules are the Truth According to Me (apologies to John Irving and T.S. Garp).

So, between the strategically chosen dates of July 6 and August 26 of 2011 (after people came back from celebrating our nation's birthday and before they left to celebrate labor (the kind that you get paid for, not the kind that causes expectant mothers to scream)), ISS asked a whole bunch of questions of both investors (institutional shareholders) and issuers (companies that issue proxies to their shareholders).

Before getting into the nitty gritty, though, I feel the need to digress. Has a body as educated and seemingly intelligent as ISS not made it through 3rd grade math? In their introductory remarks, ISS notes that "[M]ore than 335 total responses were received. A total of 138 institutions responded. ... 197 corporate issuers responded ... ." I got out my handy-dandy calculator which in my case sits somewhere north of my neck (traditional calculators have a tendency in my world to hide themselves under stacks of paper, but my calculator always seems to live in about the same place, covered with some hair in strategically chosen places) and added 138 to 197. Hmm? The total was 335. It was not more than 335. Come on, ISS, this is simple stuff. Editors, though, have a problem with starting sentences with a number, so they use silly terms like more than to mean exactly.

OK, enough on that rant ...

In any event, ISS does an outstanding job with their report. Right up front, they summarize key findings. And, for the upcoming proxy season, the #1 governance issue cited by 60% of investor respondents and 61% of issuer respondents is Executive Compensation. Said differently: if a company wants to piss off its shareholders, the #1 way is to compensate its executives in a manner or amount that does not align with shareholder goals. Other top issues for shareholders were Board independence, shareholder rights, and risk oversight, in that order. For companies, the only issue other than executive compensation receiving more than a 30% vote was risk oversight.

Later on, ISS drills down (I've never used that term in writing before, but I felt the need today). Some of the findings that I found interesting were these:

  • 62% of investors find it very relevant (negatively so) when executives are paid significantly higher than their peer group.
  • 88% of investors find it very relevant if pay levels have increased disproportionately to the company's performance.
  • While issuers generally do not feel compelled to respond to a say-on-pay vote until the dissenting vote has approached or reached 50%, nearly half (48%) of investors feel that an issuer should provide an explicit response when the no votes reach 20% or even less.
Institutional shareholders are very serious about say-on-pay. Companies that ignore this are seeing two phenomena -- contested elections of Directors and shareholder lawsuits against the Board of Directors. 

For companies that may be headed down a path of compensation that could get a lot of no votes, they need to do a lot of planning and explain their decisions up front. Right up there near the top of problematic pay practices are egregious SERPs. Sometimes, they are justifiable, and other times, ...

Caveat enditor!

No comments:

Post a Comment