Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are You Sleeping? Who is Managing the Compensation Risk?

Risk management used to be viewed with a somewhat jaundiced eye. It was something that the geeks did. I know, at your company, you just didn't need it because you understood your business better than some guy with a fancy degree, a pocket protector, and an HP-12C.

While companies had full-time risk managers and even risk management departments before then, this mad science really came to the forefront in the early 2000s. Suddenly, companies were seeing that risks that they had taken, especially in the area of leveraging themselves perhaps a bit too much, were starting to bite them in their proverbial hind quarters.

With that, the CRO or Chief Risk Officer, became the new sought after geek. Here was a person with specialized training who could look after the store, so to speak. If the CRO approved, then the CEO and CFO had a special comfort that all would be well.

Yes, CROs, as a group, do have specialized training. They tend to be smart people who can model the risks of a veritable cornucopia of corporate transactions. But, even the smartest person doesn't have the capacity to consider every possible risk. Sometimes, they are just not aware of certain risks. Sometimes, the other departments take actions without consulting the CRO and his staff because they just don't think the particular decisions has a risk potential that hits that threshold.

Perhaps that department was Human Resources. I know, you think I am wrong; by the early 2000s, the Risk Management Department was heavily involved in working with pension plans. Well, I am focused on a different part of Human Resources here, the part that develops compensation programs.

Way back when, you know, about 25 years ago, a typical bonus program worked something like this. Everyone in the program had a target bonus -- some percentage of their base pay. To go with that target bonus, you had a set of goals. They were, in theory, set up so that you had a roughly equal chance of exceeding your goals or of falling short. And, your bonus was typically capped, on the upside at twice your target and on the downside at zero.

Ah, theory, what a wonderful concept.

Picture yourself as a manager. You have three employees to review for their performance in 2011. Let's call them Larry, Moe, and Curly. Larry has always been a star performer. Each year, he has exceeded expectations. But, in 2011, Larry did not have a good year. He fell short of every goal. But, somewhere in your mind, although you can't quite put your finger on the exact cause, you think there must have been extenuating circumstances. You are sure that Larry will have a good year in 2012, and what's more, you don't want to lose him to a competitor. So, on your 1 to 5 scale with 5 being the best, you grade Larry as a 3.5. You tell him that he is being rewarded for a prolonged period of high performance, but that he needs to step it up in 2012.

Moe has always been your man in the middle. He's been a consistent performer, always meeting goals, but rarely exceeding them. But, Moe has those intangibles. They are not in his goals, but you just have to reward him because he makes everyone around him better. In 2011, Moe exactly met his goals, but because of that special something, you gave him a rating of 3.5.

Curly has been your problem child. Each year, he has been the laggard of the three, but you have kept him around both because the team has been meeting its goals (due mostly to Larry) and because of his wonderful sense of humor. Curly keeps you laughing and he is just so likable. Finally, for the first time, in 2011, Curly beat his goals. You gave him a rating of 3.5

Let's look at what happened. Your team exactly met its goals. Yet, you awarded each team member with a rating that gets them a bonus of 125% of target. Hmm?

And, then in another year, business was really good. You find out that the bonus pool is going to be really big. Curly had another very good year. You give him a rating of 4.5. Moe had a better year than Curly, and you know that somehow, Moe also contributed to Larry's success this year, so you give him a 4.9. But, Larry, oh Larry, had the year of a lifetime. If Moe got a 4.9, there is no rating that does Larry's year justice, so you take it up the line to get Larry a bonus of 3 times target. And, because business was so good, it gets approved.

But, the next year, the economy goes into the tank. Nobody meets their goals, and in fact, the company lost money. It would like to have a negative bonus pool, but that can't happen. And, all of your employees tried really hard, so you want to give them something. You beg to your superiors just as every manager is doing, but where will the money come from?

As time went by, companies survived this strange concept where everyone got a bigger bonus than they really deserved. So, it became accepted that there was really no upside limit to bonuses, at least not for the top producers.

But, I digress for a brief commercial. If you haven't read Michael Lewis's book, The Big Short, then you should. To a large extent, it shows how having no upside limits to incentive payouts encourages absolutely ridiculous risk-taking. Without giving away the whole book, people were making and taking 12-figure risks on bets that they didn't understand. Hmm?

And, they were being rewarded for it. People who had budgeted incentive payouts in the range of several hundred thousand dollars were suddenly getting 8-figure payouts. They were betting on these wonderful instruments known as credit default swaps, and most of them were taking what turned out to be the wrong side of the bet. But, the risk management people didn't understand them either. In fact, very few people did.

So, now we are really in 2011, very close to the end of it, in fact. Managers with explicit incentive compensation plans will be facing the same issues all over again. Far more visibly, Compensation Committees will be facing the same issues all over again.

Let's peek in at a deliberation as the Compensation Committee decides how much of an incentive payout to give to CEO Lou Abbott and CFO Bud Costello. The company didn't have a great year, but neither did any of their competitors. And, Abbott and Costello, everyone knows, are legends in the industry. We really can't afford to lose either one of them. Last year wasn't too good either. We really can't risk losing them over a bad incentive payout. Let's give them something extra this year and we'll go harsher on them the next time their scheduled payout would be huge. [Hopefully, this behavior isn't occurring in any real Compensation Committees, but you never know.]

Do you think the Compensation Committee will remember?

So, here's the deal. In a bad year, bonuses in total may be more than the company can afford because they can't afford to pay out that little and risk losing people over it. In a mediocre year, bonuses in total may be more than the company can afford because everybody had something positive about their year. And, in a great year, the risk-takers won and they will get bonuses so big that the company will pay out more than it can afford.

And where is the Risk Management Department to ask who is managing the compensation risk?

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