Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On ISS and SERPs

We're getting close to proxy season for issuers of proxies under the purview of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). And, especially since the passage of Dodd-Frank which gave us the new concept of the  (non-binding, but very important) Shareholder Say-On-Pay (SSOP), one of the most important names that we see is Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS).

In a nutshell, ISS provides a service to institutional shareholders of issuers. By performing their analysis of SSOP proposals, ISS gives its subscribers guidance related to how they should cast their SSOP votes. While I may not sound entirely favorable toward ISS and their opinions in this post, I do think this is a valuable service.

For those people who would like to understand ISS's standards and protocols, they have a fairly detailed website with new practices for 2013 as well as their comprehensive 2012 policies.

Now I quote directly from their comprehensive 2012 policies:
 Egregious pension/SERP (supplemental executive retirement plan) payouts:
§  Inclusion of additional years of service not worked that result in significant benefits provided in new arrangements
§  Inclusion of performance-based equity or other long-term awards in the pension calculation
I could be particularly troubled by what I see there, but it's not what gives me pause. Generally, granting of additional years of service for top executives is not a best practice. Similarly, inclusion of long-term awards in compensation for SERP purposes is not a best practice.

However, ISS appears (emphasis here on appears as compared to has) to have taken the position that having a SERP with a more generous formula than in a qualified plan also constitutes an egregious SERP. Often, they are correct. But, not always.

There is a reason, or at least there ought to be, that SERPs are designed as they are. Some companies, for example, tend to promote from within and their executives will likely be long-service employees who are motivated by retention devices rather than attraction devices. SERPs perform this function well. Freezing a SERP when the qualified defined benefit (DB) plan is frozen may be detrimental to shareholders as executives will no longer be bound by the retention device.

What should ISS do? While I have often said negative things about the Summary Compensation Table (SCT) in the proxy, perhaps the SEC had it somewhat correct when they designed it. While technical pension issues may make the pension data in the proxy less valuable than it otherwise might be, the pension accrual is part of annual compensation.

Now, suppose an executive receives lower direct cash compensation than his peer group (other companies), but receives more in deferred compensation through a SERP. Should this be problematic to shareholders? In my opinion, it should not be. In fact, since direct cash compensation is the proverbial bird in the hand while deferred compensation may not be paid if the company suffers particularly adverse business circumstances such as bankruptcy, the generous SERP in lieu of generous current cash may actually be more desirable. But, it's not viewed that way.

New methodologies allow reviewers of proxies to better make this analysis. I'm working on a paper that will explain this in more detail. Regular readers will see it here.

Friday, October 26, 2012

MAP-21 and SERP Funding, Now May be the Time

If you work with US defined benefit (DB) pensions and you haven't been living under a rock, then you are probably familiar with MAP-21, the law passed this summer whose more formal name is Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century. It was positioned as a highway bill, but you are too smart for all that and know all about positioning. Where building highways costs money, lowering corporate deductions for pension plans raises money (or gets scored that way by the Congressional Budget Office). So, MAP-21 included pension funding relief.

In a nutshell, MAP-21 allows plan sponsors to use significantly above-market discount rates in the determination of funding requirements for their qualified pension plans. The trade-off comes in increases in PBGC premiums. But, while the first of these items is optional, the second is required.

So, where am I going with this? If you read the title of this post, you may be wondering.

Flashback to late 2004. Congress passed and a different president signed into law another act supposedly designed to create jobs. This one had a much more in-your-face title, the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. With that innocuous name, however, came a new section of the Internal Revenue Code, Section 409A that among other things removed distribution and funding flexibility for DB SERPs. Since that time, many executives have wondered how to get their benefits, or at least portions of them, out from under the dark veil of 409A.

For some companies, MAP-21 may have provided an answer.

WARNING: before considering an option such as what I am about to describe, plan sponsors should very carefully consider the underlying risks.

The time may be right to consider a QSERP. Briefly, a QSERP is a means to transfer certain nonqualified benefits to a qualified plan. You can read about them in more detail here.

So, why might now be the right time. MAP-21 has given companies the ability to use higher discount rates in funding their pension plans. This means that any restrictions that might have arisen due to low funded statuses have likely disappeared. So, companies have the opportunity to fund this obligation in a qualified plan without having to fund it all at once.

Risk managers might tell you not to do this and there are good reasons. Paramount among them is that temporary use of above-market discount rates does not change the "true" funded status of a plan.

Other risk managers might tell you that you should do this and you should do it now. Why? Let's consider a simple example. Suppose you have agreed to pay your CEO an additional $100,000 per year (for life starting at age 65) from the SERP. This is over and above what he will get from the qualified DB plan. The present value of that obligation is the same whether that benefit is in the qualified plan or in the SERP. But, in the qualified plan, you get these advantages and many others:

  • The benefit will not be subject to 409A
  • You could efficiently fund the benefit immediately and generally get an immediate tax deduction for that funding
  • That tax deduction may be taken at a higher corporate tax rate than it will be in the future
  • When the CEO retires, his benefit can be paid out of a large pool of assets rather than creating a cash flow crunch
This is a complex process and there is much to consider. But, for the right company, now is the time. You'll only know if you are the right company after careful analysis. Ask an expert.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Inflation Finally Adjusts Pension Limits Again

I'll start out by apologizing for not posting for a while. I've been on the road in multiple time zones and sometimes (well, actually always), blogging isn't priority #1. But, it's time to get back to it.

As most readers will know many of the limitations that affect qualified retirement plans are subject to indexation and the timing of the announcements is mid-October. So, without further ado, here you go with the 2013 limits:
  • The limit for deferrals to 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and (believe it or not), the Government Thrift Plan increases from $17,000 to $17,500
  • The limit on catch-up contributions for people who turn age 50 (or older during the year) stays at $5,500
  • The defined benefit 415 limit has increased from $200,000 (annual benefit as a single life annuity at age 65) to $205,000
  • The 415 limit for defined contribution plans will be $51,000 up from $50,000
  • The limit on compensation that may be considered under the plan increases from $250,000 to $255,000
  • The threshold for determining Highly Compensated employees remains at $115,000
  • The pay cap for governmental plans rises from $375,000 to $380,000
I'll be back to posting more regularly again. Thanks for being patient.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Compliance or Policy?

This is going to be a fairly short post, I think. I want to talk a bit about what should be the greater influence on benefit program design -- compliance or policy?

Right now, and especially as PPACA (health care reform or ObamaCare, if you prefer) is starting to exert its influence, it seems that most benefit program design is structured to facilitate compliance with the myriad of laws that Congress has passed since ERISA was signed 38 years ago. Just think, you provide a big health care benefit, you pay a Cadillac Tax. Your NHCEs can't afford to defer to your 401(k), your HCEs don't get to benefit. You would like to provide your employees with retirement income, but you cannot stand the volatility in corporate cash flow and P&L of a defined benefit plan.

Seems wrong, doesn't it?

So, even to the extent that you have a policy that is governed by things like true long-term cost and what is right for your employees and your business, you are unable to implement that policy while being in compliance.

Seems wrong, doesn't it?

Of course, it's wrong, but the people who make the laws don't seem to get it. They don't believe in benefits policy. They don't believe in retirement policy. They believe in tax policy and gerrymandering the tax code to make it work, often at the expense of corporations (large and small) and their employees.

Seems wrong, doesn't it?