Recent federal guidance on bank incentive compensation practices, combined with the landmark Dodd-Frank Act, is requiring bank compensation committees and their audit or risk committee counterparts to take a collaborative approach to determining whether their plans pose a material financial risk to the institution. This and other topics were covered at a roundtable discussion on compensation risk that brought together directors and human resources professionals at large, publicly traded banks, representatives of the McLagan consulting firm and the law firm Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton. The half-day event was held in late September at the University Club in Washington, DC.
Released in June 2010, the new rules mandate that banks must review all of their incentive compensation programs annually to make sure they have an appropriate balance of risk and reward, and that the board of directors is providing an adequate level of governance oversight.
Al Moschner, who is chairman of the compensation committee at $13.9 billion-asset Wintrust Financial Corp. in Lake Forest, Illinois, said the compensation committee sponsored a meeting with the chairmen of the other board committees, the chief executive officer, the chief financial officer and the chief risk officer to review the risk profile of the bank in the current environment. A head of the bank’s human resources department also described the various levels of compensation that are being contemplated for the coming year. “And then there was a robust discussion about whether that makes sense from a risk perspective,” Moschner says.
Wintrust also emphasizes an integrative approach to managing compensation risk by having some directors serve on both its compensation and audit committees. “We try to make sure we have some cross-pollination between the two committees,” Moschner explains.
“The compensation committee needs to work collaboratively with the bank’s risk committee,” says Todd Leone, a principal at McLagan. “The risk committee needs to review the goals that drive the bank’s incentive plans. They have to ensure what is being motivated doesn’t have unintended consequences. The compensation committee drives plan design; the audit/risk committee ensures it is within the bank’s overall risk tolerance.”
Compensation committees today also face the challenge of developing an appropriate set of performance metrics for long-term incentive plans. Part of the problem is that federal regulators are now focusing greater attention on compensation risk generally, but fundamental changes that have affected the entire industry add to the challenge. “How banks make money now is now very different and that makes it harder to develop incentive compensation plans,” says Clifford J. Isroff, the lead independent director at $14 billion-asset FirstMerit Corp. in Akron, Ohio, and a member of both the compensation and risk committees.
Wintrust’s long-term incentive plan used to be based on a single metric—annual earnings growth?but the current operating environment has led the bank to build multiple performance metrics into its plan, including return on assets and growth in tangible net assets.
Another controversial issue that compensation committees are being forced to deal with is the clawback provision in the Dodd-Frank Act. The act requires the Securities and Exchange Commission to direct the national securities exchanges like NYSE Euronext and NASDAQ OMX to prohibit companies from listing their stocks if they have not adopted clawback policies that would allow them to recover incentive compensation that has already been paid to former or current executives if it was based on incorrect data.
Gayle Applebaum, a principal director at McLagan, said many of her bank clients are finding some resistance from their senior managers to the very notion of clawbacks, as well as deferrals that are now being built into many incentive plans. “Oftentimes managers don’t want these things for their people,” Applebaum says. “They are worried about their ability to retain talent.”
One point that most of the participants agreed on was the importance of having a strong risk culture throughout the organization. Although it will still be necessary to vet the bank’s incentive compensation plans annually to satisfy the new federal requirements, a strong risk culture is every bank’s first line of defense.
“If you manage the risk, I’m not worried about the compensation plan,” said Frank Farnesi, who is chairman of the compensation committee at Beneficial Mutual Bancorp Inc., a $4.7 billion-asset mutual holding company in Philadelphia.