I told you it would happen, didn't I? I said that companies whose executives participate in defined benefit (DB) pension plans, especially nonqualified plans were going to report massive increases in CEO compensation. I said that there would be a big name company for which the increase in CEO compensation due in large part to the amount from pensions would create hysteria.
It has happened. Bloomberg reported in a video and an article that GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt was rewarded with an 88% increase in compensation despite sluggish performance. The company attributed the compensation increase to his reshaping of the company and to an increase in the value of his pension.
In my opinion, this could have been handled better. They could have focused on the message from my January 7 post. It said right there what was going to happen. I wouldn't lie to you and I wouldn't lie to GE.
Let's digress for a moment and think about how executive compensation is disclosed for the named executive officers (NEOs), including the CEO, at a public company. The company discloses compensation generally in the Summary Compensation Table (SCT) of the proxy. In the Compensation Discussion and Analysis section (CD&A), the company is afforded the opportunity to discuss its compensation practices, procedures, and policies. As the CD&A is a narrative, the company is required to discuss its rationale for its policies, but it is certainly not precluded from explaining changes. In fact, this is a great place for the company to explain what happened.
According to the Bloomberg article, Immelt's total compensation was approximately $37.3 million. I am neither condoning nor condemning that level of compensation here; that's not my point. Bloomberg says that that amount represents an 88% increase in compensation. Using that figure suggests that Immelt's compensation in the previous year was approximately $19.8 million. Further, Bloomberg says that GE noted that without the pension increase, Immelt's 2014 compensation would have been $18.9 million.
Opportunity knocked, but nobody opened the door. Apparently, GE did give Immelt a roughly 6% increase in base pay apparently from $3.2 million to $3.4 million. There appear to have been no other changes in compensation structure or policy with regard to the CEO.
Suppose GE took the step of explaining the pension increase. The pension plans in which Immelt participates did not change. He wasn't granted a massive benefit increase resulting in his total compensation doubling. What happened was that his 2014 compensation replaced his 2009 compensation (remember 2009 was a horrible year for the US and global economies) in a 5-year average, pension discount rates dropped (this increases the present value of pension benefits), and the Society of Actuaries released a new mortality table (I suspect GE adopted it) reflecting longer life expectancies in general.
What could GE have controlled in an effort to keep Immelt's disclosed compensation relatively steady? They could not have controlled discount rates as they are based largely on the high-quality corporate bond market. They could have chosen, subject to the approval of their external auditors, to not update the mortality table to use for the calculations, but that would only have been obfuscating the issue and frankly, the updated table is likely more appropriate for them. Finally, 2009 happened in 2009. It can't be undone. Incentives paid out more in 2014 than they did in 2009. That's true for almost all companies. What it is reflective of, that corporate performance has improved, is true for many companies and it's a good thing.
So, GE and Immelt didn't do anything evil. Their crime, so to speak, was not an error of commission, so much as it appears to have been one of omission.
GE had to know that this "increase in compensation" would set off alarms. Bloomberg appears to have received or at least heard statements from GE. Why did GE not prepare its spokesperson to address this? The fault was not in changes to their compensation program; the fault was in their lack having a prepared message.
I don't expect that they will be the only company to face this issue. I can help you craft the message. Get out ahead of this problem.
You'll thank me later.