It’s tough to please both regulators and shareholders these days, especially when they want contradictory things. Take the case of executive compensation.
Shareholder groups have been pushing for a greater tie between performance and executive pay. One of the most powerful of these, Institutional Shareholder Services, screens executive pay packages to see how they stack up against peers relative to performance and how the change in CEO pay mirrors change in total shareholder value over five years. ISS recommendations to shareholders on such matters can strongly influence a company’s say-on-pay shareholder advisory vote. Umpqua Holdings Corp. and other banks found this out, as described in a recent story in Bank Director magazine.
But looking at the stock price and shareholder value is exactly what regulators don’t like.
Jim Nelson, a senior vice president of supervision and regulator for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago overseeing large banks and savings institutions, is concerned with the use of stock price or return on equity as a measure of performance in making pay determinations. Return on equity doesn’t factor in the risk that executives might be taking to achieve such returns, he said at Bank Director’s Bank Executive & Board Compensation conference recently in Chicago. There are many factors that can influence the stock price which are outside the realm of management’s control, he said.
“We think most of the people in the firm don’t have a direct impact on the value of the stock price,’’ he said. “We’re looking for a measurement tied to something that that person does control.”
Regulators also explained how they feel about shareholders in their 2010 Guidance on Sound Incentive Compensation Policies, which applies to all banks and thrifts.
The joint regulatory guidance says “shareholders of a banking organization in some cases may be willing to tolerate a degree of risk that is inconsistent with the organization’s safety and soundness.”
So there’s the rub. Do you please shareholders or do you please regulators? But there are ways to combine the concerns of both.
“It’s not the amount [of bonus or incentive pay],’’ Nelson said. “What we’re looking at is the arrangements. You should reward individuals who are producing an attractive risk-adjusted return for you. If they are making more money with low risk, they should be paid more than someone who is making money with high risk. I think that is aligned with what shareholders want and the board wants. There is a lot more free enterprise in this approach than people think.”
He said some big banks are adjusting their profits based on risk metrics before handing out bonuses.
Meanwhile, big banks also are taking into account the needs of shareholders and the recommendations of shareholder advisory groups. Tying short and long-term bonuses, at least in part, to shareholder return is one way to do that.
For example, Buffalo, New York-based First Niagara Financial Corp., one of the nation’s 25 largest bank holding companies with $35 billion in assets, paid out long term incentives to top executives in three ways: stock options, time-vested restricted stock and performance-based restricted stock that vests in three years based on total shareholder return relative to the SNL Mid-Cap Bank Index.
Barbara Jeremiah, a First Niagara director who chairs it compensation committee, said when the bank ran into troubles trying to raise capital for its acquisition last May of HSBC branches in New York and had to cut its dividend in half, the board recognized the hit shareholders took and wasn’t locked into paying short-term bonuses based on earnings per share. The board had made sure it had some level of discretion in determining the bonus, she said.
The board adjusted incentive compensation for CEO John Koelmel to reflect the decline in stock price and reduction of the dividend. Jeremiah encouraged compensation committee members and human resources directors at the Bank Director conference to read and stay abreast of how others viewed executive pay, making note of an article by Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times entitled “C.E.O.’s and the Pay-‘Em-or-Lose-‘Em Myth.”
“We need to keep that outside view,’’ Jeremiah said. “How do our customers and others view us?”