Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans (SERPs) are a valuable compensation tool that banks can use to attract and retain executive talent. SERPs are nonqualified deferred compensation arrangements that are non-elective, meaning the company is responsible for contributions to the plan. Unfortunately, improper design of these plans can result in significant expenses for banks without providing the intended retention value. As a result, SERPs have gained a lot of negative press (particularly during the economic downturn), but if used properly, they can be a powerful tool in compensation. Here’s what you need to know about executive retirement benefits and how banks can avoid the common issues that arise with SERPs.
SERPs have some lingering reputational issues, although this isn’t entirely fair. Many banks do their due diligence and pay close attention to the expenses they will incur as a result of their benefit plans, but this hasn’t always been the case. When SERPs rose in popularity, many banks entered into inappropriately designed plans without understanding their implications. A poorly designed SERP can accelerate vesting schedules in the event of early retirement or cause banks to pay benefits in excess of 100 percent of final salary. Problems also arise due to IRC Section 280G (which deals with golden parachutes) in the event of a change of control. Additionally, many of these SERPs were designed solely with the placement of Bank Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) in mind, ignoring the strategic purpose and future impact. Fast forwarding to 2016, we see a number of problems related to SERP plans. The primary concerns are the following:
- Banks absorbing mortality risks for lifetime benefit plans.
- Defined benefit structures whereby a SERP benefit is contingent upon a final pay calculation.
- Not considering 280G excise tax concerns in the case of M&A activity.
- Unreasonable benefit structures that are either too lucrative or conservative.
- Equity-based SERP designs.
Many boards have been soured by a bad experience and vowed to never implement another SERP plan at their bank. From a strategic perspective, this is a mistake that will hinder the bank’s ability to retain and recruit the talent necessary to stay competitive.
The real problem isn’t SERPS—its poor design. A SERP isn’t the answer to all the retention or recruitment issues, but it is a tool that should be used to complement the other components of compensation. SERPS themselves are not the problem; poorly designed SERPs are. Let’s address a few key design considerations:
- Know what your expense is going to be. The benefit should be fixed day one, plain and simple.
- Understand the potential 280G impact, regardless of the probability of a change in control.
- Know that financing tools exist to reduce plan expense and provide a lifetime benefit with a fixed cost through proven methodologies. Explore all financing options—BOLI is not the only tool available for bankers.
- Understand the strategic purpose behind the benefit plan structure, and conduct peer compensation studies to ensure that the benefit and compensation are reasonable and competitive.
- Make sure the bank is protected in the event of premature death, but don’t allow life insurance to drive the design of your plan.
If your plan does not incorporate some of these features, it’s time to take a hard look at your plan design. Although IRC 409A (which regulates the tax treatment for nonqualified deferred compensation plans) imposes limitations on plan design changes, there are a number of strategies to help reduce the general plan expense, mortality risk concerns, 280G exposure and other issues without violating IRC 409A. There are hedging vehicles in the market to generate efficiencies at the benefit expense level. Consult with a compensation professional to help you navigate these waters.
Many banks continue to use SERPs effectively. A bad experience should not deter you from exploring the plan’s positive benefits. That said, a SERP can be complex and should be designed objectively by compensation professionals. If you explore all financing tools to make sure the bank is getting the most efficient design, your bank will be in an excellent position to accomplish your goals.