In its discussion of its pay package this year for Vikram Pandit, Citigroup’s chief executive officer, the company extolled the accomplishments of the man brought in to clean up the mess that was left in the midst of the financial crisis.
Citigroup has been profitable for eight consecutive quarters. It has repaid the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program money. Pandit had gone two years without drawing a salary in the midst of the company’s trouble, and was rewarded in 2011 with a salary and a bonus. Plus, the company had taken steps to align its incentive pay with future performance: 60 percent of top executives’ bonuses will be deferred over a four-year period based on performance.
None of this was enough to please investors and shareholder advisory groups such as Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS). Investors voted down this week the CEO’s pay by 55 percent in an advisory vote made possible by the Dodd-Frank Act. ISS claimed Pandit’s compensation was misaligned with total shareholder returns (Citigroup’s stock price was down 23 percent during the past 52-week period and it was down 93 percent during the past five years.) Future bonuses would be “essentially discretionary” based on a variety of factors such as execution of long-term strategic goals and return on capital, according to ISS.
Basically, the pressure is on for Citigroup and other publicly traded companies to tie incentive pay to specific metrics that benefit shareholders, rather than more vague goals that give the board wide discretion.
It didn’t help matters that Citigroup was one of few big banks to fail the federal government’s stress tests this year, meaning it won’t be able to return capital to shareholders in the form of dividends or stock buybacks.
Plus, ISS determined that Pandit would be paid more than his peers at other big financial firms. Although Citigroup reported that his total compensation for fiscal year 2011 was $15 million, ISS determined that future awards could be worth as much as $34 million. A $10 million award is tied to the company earning pre-tax income for a two-year period of at least $12 billion, which “does not appear challenging given that the company’s income from operations exceeded $15 billion in each of the last two fiscal years.”
Citigroup may be scrambling to deal with the bad publicity now from the “no” vote on pay, even if technically, the advisory vote is non-binding. But will other banks scramble to make sure they don’t suffer the same fate?
Maybe not, says Peter Miterko, a managing director in New York City for Pearl Meyers & Partners, a compensation consulting firm.
“It may be a more subtle impact, rather than everyone saying ‘Let’s redo our pay packages,’’’ he says.
Most banks already have sent out their proxy statements for the year, making it hard to revamp any pay practices. But Miterko thinks the publicity will encourage companies to communicate better in the future with shareholders about why they pay what they do.
A typical problem in proxy statements is that it’s not clear to shareholders what performance metrics must be met for an executive to get incentive pay, he says.
“The positive development [with say-on-pay] is that shareholders tend to see a lot more clear connect with how they’re better off,’’ he says. “Shareholders want to know that executives are told in the beginning of the year, ‘This is what you have to do to get your bonus.’ They want to know the goals are stretch goals and the financial improvement will warrant the incentive payment.”
Don Norman, an attorney for Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg LLP in Chicago, who handles compensation issues for community banks, says many banks have already made changes in order to defer a portion of incentive pay for executives and many have tied it to specific performance that benefits shareholders.
Much of that was set in motion following regulatory guidance on incentive pay in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the compensation rules for banks that received Troubled Asset Relief Program money.
But tying pay almost entirely to shareholder returns can place too much emphasis on short-term performance and thereby create undue risk, he says.
“The market doesn’t have a long-term focus,’’ he says. “It’s ‘what have you done for me lately?’”
Instead, he thinks it is not unreasonable for bank boards to maintain some level of discretionary decision-making over bonuses. This is much easier in the private bank setting.
“If there’s no discretion, why do you need a compensation committee?” he says. “You have an intelligent and educated group of board members for a reason and there should be some level of deference to their judgment. There are management efforts that should be rewarded that are not always reflected in formulas. Good or bad, this should be part of any pay assessment.”
Banks without a lot of institutional ownership will have less reason to worry about shareholder advisory groups such as ISS. Still, no one wants to find a majority of their shareholders voting down their pay packages.
Last year, 41 firms in the Russell 3000 (or less than 2 percent of the total index) reported that they failed to win majority approval from investors on pay, according to ISS. This year, 175 companies have had proxy votes and the average shareholder vote has been 90.4 percent in favor, ISS says.
So ending up as one of the firms with a no vote doesn’t look so good.
McLagan, another compensation consulting firm, offers some advice to avoid a “no” vote:
- Analyze the shareholder base to determine the level of ISS or other advisory firm influence.
- Monitor changes in each of your institutional investor’s proxy voting guidelines.
- Audit your compensation and governance plans and programs for any potential exposure to guidelines of proxy advisor groups and institutional investors.
- Track 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year total shareholder return relative to your ISS-established peer group.
- Use the proxy compensation discussion section to clearly tell the “story” of executive pay and explain pay and governance decisions.
- Be prepared to engage in meaningful dialog with shareholders.