Top Priorities for Compensation Committees Today

The compensation landscape in banking is constantly evolving, and compensation committees must evolve with it. We want to highlight three priorities for bank compensation committees today: the rising cost of talent, the uncertain economic environment, and the link between environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues and human capital and compensation.

The Rising Cost of Talent
The always-fierce competition for top banking talent has intensified in recent years, especially in certain pockets like digital, payments and commercial banking. Banks are using a variety of approaches to compete in this market and make their compensation and benefits programs more attractive, including special one-time cash bonuses or equity awards, larger annual or off-cycle salary increases, flexible work arrangements and other enhanced benefits.

In evaluating these alternative approaches, compensation committees must weigh the value each offers to employees compared to the cost to the bank and its shareholders. For example, increasing salaries provides near-term value to employees but results in additional fixed costs. Special equity awards that vest over multiple years provide less near-term value to employees but represent a one-time expense and are more retentive.

We expect the “hot” talent market, combined with inflation, to continue applying upward pressure on compensation. However, the recent rate of increase in compensation levels is untenable over the long-term, particularly in the current uncertain economic environment. Banks will need to optimize other benefits, such as work-life balance and professional development opportunities, to attract and retain top talent.

The Uncertain Economic Outlook
In 2021, many banks had strong earnings as the quicker-than-expected economic recovery allowed them to reverse their loan loss provisions from 2020. As a result, many banks could afford to pay significantly higher incentives for 2021’s performance than they did for 2020’s performance. The performance outlook for 2022 is unclear. Inflation, rising interest rates and macroeconomic uncertainty will impact bank performance results in 2022. Results will likely vary significantly from bank to bank, based on the institution’s business mix and balance sheet makeup.

Compensation committees will need to consider how the push and pull of these factors impact financial results and, as a result, incentive payouts. Some compensation committees may need to consider adjusting payouts to recognize the quantifiable financial impact of unanticipated conditions outside of management’s control, like the Federal Reserve’s aggressive interest rate increases. Banks may find it harder to quantify the financial impact of other economic conditions, like inflation. As a result, many compensation committees may find it more effective to use discretion to align incentive compensation with their overall view of performance.
Bank compensation committees considering using discretion to adjust incentive payouts for 2022 should follow three principles:

1. Be consistent: Apply discretion when macroeconomic factors negatively or positively impact financial results.
2. Align final payouts with performance and profitability.
3. Clearly communicate rationale to participants and shareholders.

Compensation committees at public banks should also be aware of potential criticism from shareholders or proxy advisory firms. The challenge for compensation committees will be balancing these principles with the business need to retain key employees in a tight labor market.

ESG and the Compensation Committee
Bank boards are spending more and more time thinking about their bank’s ESG strategies. The role of many compensation committees has expanded to include oversight of ESG issues related to human capital, such as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Employees, regulators and shareholders are increasingly paying attention to DEI practices and policies of banks. In response, many large banks have announced public objectives for increasing diversity and establishing cultures of equity and inclusion.

In an attempt to motivate action and progress, compensation committees are also considering whether ESG metrics have a place in incentive plans. In recent years, the largest banks have disclosed that they are considering progress against DEI objectives in determining incentive compensation for executives. Most of these banks disclose evaluating DEI on a qualitative basis, as part of a holistic discretionary assessment or as part of an individual or strategic component of the annual incentive plan. Banks considering adopting a DEI metric or other ESG metrics should do so because the metric is a critical part of the business strategy, rather than to “check the box.” Human capital is a critical asset in banking; many banks may find that DEI is an important part of their business strategy. For these banks, including a DEI metric can be a powerful way to signal to employees and shareholders that DEI is a focus for the bank.

Information Overload

One of the biggest challenges facing all bank directors is the voluminous amount of information they need to read and comprehend before every board and committee meeting. More than a third of the board members responding to Bank Director’s 2021 Governance Best Practices Survey reported that not all directors review materials before board meetings — reducing the effectiveness of their boards.

Board and committee meeting packets — most of which are distributed electronically through secure board portals — can easily reach several hundred pages, particularly at large banks with complex operations. The packets are typically distributed several days in advance of board and committee meetings, often on a Thursday or a Friday, so directors have the weekend to read through them.

It is difficult to subscribe a best practice to board packets because they often reflect what board and committee members want to see. But there are certain standards that should apply. At a minimum, the board packet should provide a comprehensive overview of the bank’s performance, while highlighting any issues of concern that require the board’s attention. At the committee level, the packet should provide an overview of relevant areas that a particular committee is working on.

Packets should be well organized and include a complete agenda for each board and committee meeting, along with any supplemental information that is provided. There is a general tendency to provide more information than less, but it should be easily accessible to the directors.

It’s also important that the information be contextualized. The quality and utility of the information from a governance oversight perspective is generally more important than the sheer quantity of what’s being provided.

James A. McAlpin Jr., a partner and global leader of the banking practice group at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, says that board packets often include too much irrelevant information. McAlpin also sits on the board of Hyperion Bank, a $300 million asset community bank in Philadelphia. “I don’t need a listing of every new loan, because I don’t know these borrowers,” he says. “I need a listing of what the trends are. What is the net interest margin? What are the concentrations?” Concentration risk was a big problem for many banks during the financial crisis, McAlpin adds. “It didn’t happen over a period of one or two months, it happened over a period of time, and no one got it because no one was focused on that as a trip wire,” he says.

And the packets themselves shouldn’t be viewed as stone tablets that came down from Mount Sinai. Boards should periodically review whether the packets’ structure and organization, as well as the information being provided, still meets directors’ needs. “You may be comfortable with the board package, but when was the last time everybody, including your committee chairs, said, ‘Do we like the format? Do we like the information presented?’” says McAlpin. “‘What’s missing?’ Very few boards have that conversation.”

The board at Community Bank System, a $15 billion regional bank holding company headquartered in DeWitt, New York, meets 10 times a year. There is also a separate board for Community Bank, N.A., the holding company’s banking subsidiary. Holding company directors also serve on the bank board; the meetings occur back to back. Meetings of the board’s three standing committees — audit, compensation and governance — usually occur before the two board meetings.  Lead Director Sally A. Steele, who joined the board in 2003 and served as chair from 2017 to 2021, says the holding company and bank boards, as well as each committee, receive their own packet with a separate agenda and supplemental information.

There’s a lot to read before meetings, according to Steele. The audit committee packet in particular can be expansive, running to as many as 300 pages. The packets for the compensation and governance committees, as well as the holding company and bank boards, are generally smaller. But taken all together, Steele says, the information “can be really voluminous.”

Should a director attempt to read every single page if the board packet runs several hundred pages? That may be impractical — and perhaps unnecessary. Steele practices something that might be described as selective reading. “It depends on which [packet] you’re talking about,” she says. Steele is not a member of the audit committee and thus does not attempt to dig through that particular pile of information, even though she and all other non-audit committee members receive it. “Do the folks on [the audit] committee read all of it? I honestly believe they do. You can tell by the questions they ask,” she says.

As the board’s lead director, and previously as its chair, Steele reads both board packets in their entirety, as well as the packets of the committees she does serve on. “I would guess most directors focus on the committees they’re on, and the material that’s there, and then probably the bank board and holding company material,” she says. “It’s a lot of information.”

Steele believes it is the responsibility of every director to come to board and committee meetings well prepared. That includes having sufficiently reviewed the information that has been sent out in advance, even if members haven’t read every word. In fact, the Community Bank System board goes through an annual assessment process that is administered by its governance committee, and preparedness is a key part of the evaluation. “In our boardroom, it would not go over very well if people were not prepared,” she says. “I think it’s part of your fiduciary obligation to be prepared for meetings. Goes without saying.”

Plowing through an expansive board packet can be a challenging exercise for new directors who don’t have enough experience to prioritize what they must read word for word over what they can more lightly review. McAlpin believes it would be helpful if one of the more experienced directors “would offer to talk to them over lunch, or meet privately and go through the packet with them to get some sense of what has happened historically and what the packet is,” he says. “I think most boards do not do a very good job of new director orientation.

When Community Bank System recruits a new director, the board tries to lighten the new member’s load by assigning the individual to only one committee. But Steele sees no way around the fact that most new directors will have a steep learning curve, and that includes plowing through the board packet and knowing how to prioritize what’s in it.

“I’ve never found that you can have too much information,” Steele says. “There comes a point in time where you understand what’s important and what’s not. Then you get to choose if you feel it’s important enough for you to spend time on. … I just think there’s a price you pay for being a new director, and it’s figuring out and understanding what’s important and what’s not important.”

Practical Thoughts for the Evolving Role of the Compensation Committee

Much has been written in recent months about the external forces accelerating investor, proxy advisor and employee focus on the topic of human capital management.

From the Securities and Exchange Commission Form 10-K human capital management disclosure requirement to a broader recognition from investors and insurers that people risk and opportunities are a material environmental, social and governance factor for every company — small and large — the compensation committee is even more central to a firm’s ESG strategy and journey than ever before.

Historically, the compensation committee charter duties were primarily focused on the chief executive officer’s  compensation and performance, as well as those elements for the broader executive officer population. However, as regulator and investor focus has shifted from executive compensation to broader human capital management, so too has the focus of many compensation committees.

In fact, many companies have changed the compensation committee name to reflect this expanded scope of duty: “Human Capital Committee” or “People Committee” are among some of the other derivations of these names. In fact, a majority of respondents in Aon’s Fall 2021 ESG Oversight Survey indicated that “human capital management” and diversity, equity and inclusion are formal duties of the compensation committee. Additionally, many companies have formally updated their charter documents to include oversight of human capital management and, increasingly, diversity, equity and inclusion related duties.

This expanded role into broader people risk and opportunities poses new challenges for the compensation committee. While compensation committees have gotten comfortable with external expectations surrounding executive compensation, the issue of broader workforce management requires a heavier coordination with corporate human resources teams. Like any  ESG topic, board or committee level oversight of a material ESG risk factor, such as human capital management, requires a clear definition of each group’s role, strong communication and information flow practices, along with an effective committee agenda list for each calendared meeting. The role of the compensation committee should not be to micromanage management teams on workforce planning, but to be informed enough on this topic to act as an independent, internal activist on the behalf of shareholders and employees.

Best Practice Considerations
With these aforementioned variables in mind, Aon recommends compensation committees consider the following best practice considerations heading into the 2022 proxy season:

  • Stay Informed. Stay current on regulations, investor expectations, and employee and market sentiment as it relates to the workforce. Use your compensation consultant or outside governance advisors to obtain necessary trends and information.
  • Ask the Right Questions. Be clear on what the company’s human capital and diversity, equity and inclusion-related goals are, and how they are tracking and defining success or failure. Know the extent to which such information is publicly disclosed or not, and understand if all such disclosures are consistent across all public forums.
  • Think Holistically. External observers are not looking at executive compensation decisions in isolation anymore. How your bank pays the CEO and other officers will be compared to how it treats the broader workforce. If you have lay-offs, furloughs or broader workforce compensation cuts, there will be an expectation that executive compensation be aligned with those broader actions. Stakeholders are evaluating executive compensation decisions in a broader context, so it is important to factor in all of these variables. It may also require greater coordination with the nominating and governance committee, if they own succession planning duties.
  • Give Yourself Credit. With human capital management being a material risk factor for virtually all industries, it is important to tell your story. If you do not proactively do this, someone else will — and it likely will not be favorable. Give yourself credit for the oversight, process, and practices that you have worked on with management to cultivate a meaningful human capital management strategy.

Structuring Incentive Compensation Plans for 2021

Compensation committees wondering how to structure 2021 incentive compensation plans and goals should keep three principles in mind, says Laura Hay, managing director at Pearl Meyer, in a panel discussion focusing on compensation matters at Bank Director’s BankBEYOND 2020 experience.

Less complexity in a plan will bring more clarity to employees and the bank, she adds.

“Don’t overthink it,” she advises directors. “Think through what you’re trying to achieve and what would move the business forward.”

Plans should give employees “some control over the ability to control those outcomes,” she says, and should be developed with an eye toward the environment remaining uncertain for the time being. If a bank’s plan uses absolute metrics, which have performed particularly poorly in 2020, compensation committees may want to widen the performance range and reduce the absolute payout.

Hay was joined in this conversation with Bank Director CEO Al Dominick by Ken Derks, managing consultant at NFP Executive Benefits, and Todd Leone, partner and head of executive compensation at McLagan.

You can access all of the BankBEYOND 2020 sessions by registering here.

Key Compensation Issues in a Turbulent Market

As compensation committee chair, Susan knew 2020 was going to be an important year for the bank.

The compensation and governance committee had taken on the topic of environmental, social and governance (ESG) for the coming year. They had conducted an audit and knew where their gaps were; Susan knew it was going take time to address all the shortfalls. Fortunately, the bank was performing well, the stock was moving in the right direction and they had just approved the 2020 incentive plans. All in all, she was looking forward to the year as she put her finished notes on the February committee meeting.

Two months later, Susan had longed for the “good old days” of February. With the speed and forcefulness that Covid-19 impacted the country, states and areas the bank served, February seemed like a lifetime ago. The bank had implemented the credit loss standard at the end of March — due to the impact of the unemployment assumptions, the CECL provision effectively wiped out the 2020 profitability. This was on top of the non-branch employees working from home, and the bank doing whatever it could to serve its customers through the Paycheck Protection Program.

Does this sound familiar to your bank? The whirlwind of 2020 has brought a focus on a number of issues, not the least of which is executive compensation. Specifically, how are your bank’s plans fairing in light of such monumental volatility? We will briefly review annual and long-term performance plans as well as a construct for how to evaluate these programs.

The degree to which a bank’s annual and long-term incentive (LTI) plans have been impacted by Covid-19 hinge primarily on two factors. First, how much are the plans based upon GAAP bottom-line profitability? Second, and primarily for LTI plans, how much are the performance-based goals based upon absolute versus relative performance?

In reviewing annual incentive plans, approximately 90% of banks use bottom-line earnings in their annual scorecards. For approximately 50% of firms, the bottom-line metrics represent a majority of their goals for their annual incentive plans. These banks’ 2020 scorecards are at risk; they are evaluating how to address their annual plan for 2020. Do they change their goals? Do they utilize a discretionary overlay? And what are the disclosure implications if they are public?

There is a similar story playing out for long-term incentive plans — with a twist. The question for LTI plans is how much are performance-based goals based upon absolute versus peer relative profitability metrics? Two banks can have the same size with the same performance, and one bank’s LTI plan can be fine and the other may have three years of LTI grants at risk of not vesting, due to their performance goals all being based on an absolute basis. In the banking industry, slightly more than 60% of firms use absolute goals in their LTI plans and therefore have a very real issue on their hands, given the overall impact of Covid-19.

Firms that are impacted by absolute goals for their LTI plans have to navigate a myriad level of accounting and SEC disclosure issues. At the same time, they have to address disclosure to ensure that institutional investors both understand and hopefully support any contemplated changes. Everyone needs to be “eyes wide open” with respect to any potential changes being contemplated.

As firms evaluate any potential changes to their executive performance plans, they need to focus on principles, process and patience. How do any potential changes reconcile to changes for the entire staff on compensation? How are the executives setting the tone with their compensation changes that will be disclosed, at least for public companies? How are they utilizing a “two touch” process with the compensation committee to ensure time for proper review and discourse? Are there any ESG concerns or implications, given its growing importance?

Firms will need patience to see the “big picture” with respect to any changes that are done for 2020 and what that may mean for 2021 compensation.

A Deeper Dive Into Board Pay

How you pay your board may have a surprising effect on its total pay package, according to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey. This exclusive analysis has been created specifically for members of our Bank Services program.

Across asset sizes, banks paying an annual retainer generally award more total compensation to the board compared to their fee-only peers or those that award a mix of the two. This analysis focuses solely on cash compensation for the full board, in the form of meetings fees and retainers. Committee compensation is excluded due to variances in structure and meeting frequency, although 63% award committee fees.

Estimated Annual Pay, by Type and Asset Size

 >$10B$1B – $10B$500M – $1B$250M – $500M<$250MAll Banks
Annual Retainer Only$595,000$380,000$312,750$180,000$150,000$400,000
Meeting Fee Only$921,000$120,000$140,000$105,000$65,000$107,500
Both Retainer + Fees$225,000$118,000$90,000$85,400$77,500$105,000

*Estimated annual pay assumes 10 directors per board and 10 meetings per year, based on the 2020 Compensation Survey.

The low usage of meeting fees by banks above $10 billion in assets, and of annual retainers by banks below $500 million in assets, result in smaller data sets for those groups.

So, are retainer-only banks overpaying their boards? Are fee-only banks underpaying theirs?

Board responsibilities have risen greatly since the last financial crisis more than a decade ago. Regulators expect more from directors; while the buck stops with the CEO, that individual ultimately reports to the board. So, while it’s hard to say what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to board pay, the gradual, increased use of annual retainers — from 61% five years ago to 70% today — reflects a realization by many boards that their members are spending more time outside of meetings on bank matters, whether that’s reviewing board packets or educating themselves on issues important to the oversight of the bank.

Annual retainers can better demonstrate the amount of the work directors put in. 

What’s more, technology has expanded how the board can meet. Some boards already offered phone and video conferencing options to more-remote members, like snowbirds who head south for the winter. The Covid-19 pandemic forced entire boards to adopt these measures, so they could become a more permanent feature for some. Should those attending virtually be compensated differently?

Annual Cash Compensation Per Director, by Type and Asset Size

 >$10B$1B – $10B$500M – $1B$250M – $500M<$250MAll Banks
Annual Retainer Only$59,500$38,000$31,275$18,000$15,000$40,000
Meeting Fee Only$92,100$12,000$14,000$10,500$6,500$10,750
Both Retainer + Fees$45,000$28,000$22,500$17,900$14,500$24,000

*Estimated annual pay per director assumes 10 meetings per year, based on the 2020 Compensation Survey. The low usage of meeting fees by banks above $10 billion in assets, and of annual retainers by banks below $500 million in assets, result in smaller data sets for those groups.

Getting the compensation mix right is vital to attracting the new talent a board needs to oversee the bank. Boards are often seeking someone younger. They may be looking to add gender or ethnic diversity. Or they may be looking for new skills.

While the 2017 Compensation Survey indicated that directors serve for loftier reasons than a supplemental paycheck — 62% cited personal growth as the top reason they serve — new, younger directors could be balancing an already high-pressure career with family obligations. And other organizations could be seeking their valuable time. Your bank likely isn’t the only one in its community on the hunt for board talent.

“It’s difficult to fully compensate someone for their time as a director,” says Flynt Gallagher, president of Compensation Advisors. “If you’re going to pay them for the time they put in, the skills they bring to the board — they’d be unaffordable.”

But boards still need to make it worthwhile to serve. Simultaneously, they may feel pressure to maintain current pay levels during the economic downturn.

Compensation committees could consider awarding equity compensation, which wasn’t factored into this analysis. Equity provides a way to pay directors more — and gives them additional skin in the game — without having an outsized effect on total compensation. Roughly half of survey respondents, primarily at public banks, awarded equity to outside directors in fiscal year 2019, at a median fair market value of $30,000. 

Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Compensation Advisors, surveyed 265 independent directors, CEOs, human resources officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks to understand trends around the acquisition of talent, CEO performance and pay, and director compensation. The survey was conducted in March and April 2020. Compensation data for directors and CEOs for fiscal year 2019 was also collected from the proxy statements of 98 publicly traded banks. Fifty-three percent of the total data represent financial institutions above $1 billion in assets; 59% are public.

Several units in Bank Director’s Online Training Series focus on compensation matters. You can also learn more about finding new talent for the board by reading “Cast a Wider Net for Your Next Director” and “How to Recruit Younger Directors.” If you’re considering virtual meetings, read “Best Practices for Virtual Board Meetings” to learn more about navigating that shift.

The Evolution of Strategic Business Objectives in Annual Incentive Plans


incentive-8-19-19.pngBoards are increasingly looking for ways to appropriately align pay and performance for bankers in the face of the disruptive changes in the industry.

Post-financial crisis, many bank boards shifted to a scorecard approach as a way to improve their compensation governance and accountability. However, industry disruption has sparked an evolution of the scorecard itself.

Before the financial crisis, determining annual bonus payouts at banks was a singular, annual event. The compensation committee and the CEO compared the bank’s current financial results to the prior year, assessed the operating environment, considered last year’s bonus pool and adjusted bonus accruals accordingly. Higher performers got a little more than prior year; poor performers looked for new jobs.

Following the financial crisis, a search for improved compensation governance and accountability ushered in a movement to construct incentive plans with payouts specifically tied to financial outcomes. This resulted in the popular financial scorecard approach used by many banks today.

Most scorecards include “hardwired” financial goals (usually earnings per share, net income and return on equity), banking-specific metrics (deposits, credit quality metrics and expense management) and a component that reflects “individual” or “discretionary” evaluations of performance.

Scorecards have served the industry well and addressed concerns that the lack of transparency into banking incentive plans resulted in shareholders being unclear of exactly what performance they were rewarding. The industry is now in the midst of a new phase of disruption that has banks reexamining their business models and entering a period of significant transformation.

In response, boards are increasingly enhancing the qualitative component of their scorecards to add balance and encompass the progress executives have made against clearly articulated strategic business objectives (SBOs). These strategic components balance the “backward-looking” nature of financial metrics with a “forward-looking” assessment that focuses on improving future financial performance.

Trends in Strategic Business Objectives
An SBO is a goal or metric that generally supports a key business priority and can be measured and objectively evaluated. For many boards, delivering against SBOs is critical to ensuring sustainability of their franchise. While growing earnings per share is a proven measure of current business success, achieving other critical outcomes is essential to creating long-term value for shareholders.

Detailed SBOs are specific to each bank and reflect where the bank is in its life cycle or period of transformation. Recently, we have observed banks incorporating the following eight categories into their SBOs for bank bonus plans:

  1. Executing the Digital Strategy: Depending on the bank’s current digital state, this category evaluates the success of critical milestones, such as percentage of paperless customers, “app” rollout and usage rates and expansion of service offerings through the digital interface.
  2. Technology Enhancements: This can include initiatives such as cybersecurity upgrades, automated fraud detection and general infrastructure enhancements like enterprise resource planning rollout.
  3. Corporate Development: This objective centers on the bank’s execution of its M&A strategy. It reflects the board’s evaluation of acquisitions, divestitures and integrations throughout the year. Banks often set goals based on quality, rather than quantity, to avoid incentivizing “bad deals.”
  4. Branch Strategy: This rewards the expansion, contraction or footprint-specific goals tied to the bank’s strategy for brick-and-mortar branch presence.
  5. Fee-Income Initiatives: Boards want to compensate for successful growing non-interest income from existing products, new products and complimentary service offerings.
  6. Customer Metrics: This can be measured through various means, such as net promoter score, internal customer satisfaction ratings, call center resolution rates and client retention statistics.
  7. Compliance: This generally focuses on the performance against anti-money laundering (AML) objectives and other regulator-specific compliance priorities.
  8. Risk Management: Boards define this SBO by evaluating process-related rollouts, infrastructure enhancements and talent upgrades across the risk function.

Banks are looking to drive their key initiatives during this time of significant transition in the industry. To do so, they are increasingly using SBOs to underpin the strategic drivers of future value creation in their business. Linking these initiatives to annual incentive compensation can communicate the importance of the strategies to the organization, and align compensation to the successful execution of these strategies.

A Compensation To-Do List For Your Board

Is your board effectively addressing the risk embedded in the bank’s compensation plans? McLagan Partner Gayle Appelbaum outlines a to-do list for boards in this video, and shares why new rules around hedging policies should be on your board’s radar. She also explains what banks need to know about these rules, along with considerations for your board’s annual compensation review.

  • Compensation Issues to Watch
  • New Rules on Hedging Practices
  • Other Practices to Address

Driving Accountability in Incentive Compensation Governance


compensation-7-17-19.pngI once flunked a math test because I didn’t show my work. Turns out, showing your work is important to both math teachers and bank regulators.

To drive accountability, it is important to document and “show your work” when it comes to governance of incentive compensation plans and processes. The largest banks, due to increased regulatory oversight, have made significant strides in complying with regulators’ guidance and creating robust accountability. Here are some resulting “better practices” that provide food for thought for banks of all sizes.

While the 2010 interagency guidance on sound incentive compensation policies is almost a decade old, it remains the foundation for regulatory oversight on the matter. The guidance outlined three lasting principles for the banking industry:

  • Provide employees incentives that appropriately balance risk and reward.
  • Create policies that are compatible with effective controls and risk management.
  • Support policies through strong corporate governance, including active and effective oversight by the organization’s board of directors.

Most organizations used the release of the 2010 guidance to take a fresh look at their incentive plans. It proposed a non-exhaustive list of risk-balancing methods, such as risk adjustment of awards and deferral of payment. Many banks changed their plan structures and provisions to increase sensitivity to, and better account for, risk. The changes made sense pragmatically but largely addressed only the first principle.

After the financial crisis, boards were expected to engage in the oversight and review of all incentive arrangements to ensure that they were not rewarding imprudent risk taking. However, most institutions quickly realized it was not practical for directors to be in the weeds of all their broad-based incentive plans and thus delegated that task to management.

Compensation committees outlined expectations for senior management regarding incentive plan creation, administration and monitoring in a formal document. Their expectations would include, for example, the process for reviewing incentive plan risk.

Comp, Risk Committees Cooperate
Banks also developed stronger communication or information sharing between the compensation and risk committees of the board. This was sometimes accomplished through cross-pollinating members between the committees or conducting joint meetings on the topic. It also became standard for the chief risk officer to participate in compensation committee meetings and present on incentive compensation risk, as well as the overall risk profile of the organization.

Incentive compensation review committees, made up of the most-senior control function heads such as the chief financial officer, chief human resource officer, general counsel and chief risk officer, are often delegated primary oversight responsibilities. To create accountability, this management committee operates under a formal charter, oversees the entire governance process, provides for credible challenges throughout and annually approves all non-executive plans. A summary of their activities and findings is presented to the compensation committee annually, at minimum.

Working groups representing various business lines and broad control functions support the management committee in actively monitoring incentive compensation plans. Every activity in the governance process—from plan creation or modification to risk reviews and back-testing—has a documented process map with roles and responsibilities.

These large bank practices might be overkill for smaller organizations. However, some level of documentation and process formalization is a healthy process for any size. My advice: Don’t get fixated on the red tape, as proper governance and controls can be scaled to the size and complexity of each individual bank.

Formalize the Process
The second and third principles of the 2010 guidance are aimed at driving greater accountability and efficient oversight, including enhanced information sharing. Formalizing the process simply helps to crystalize expectations for those involved and safeguards against the dodging of responsibilities.

Plus, regulators—just like that math teacher—want to see the work. It’s not enough to simply have the right answer. You must be able to document the process you went through to get there.

Review Your Director Equity Plans


equity-4-17-19.pngOutside director compensation has been on the minds of shareholders and compensation committees after a 2017 court decision and a continuing focus of proxy advisory firms that recommend how institutional investors vote on matters presented to public company stockholders.

In late 2017, the Delaware Supreme Court issued a decision involving claims of excessive nonemployee director compensation at Investors Bancorp, a Short Hills, New Jersey-based bank. In that case, the court applied a higher legal standard to decisions made by directors about their own compensation.

Since the 2017 decision, other cases have been settled involving similar claims against public companies, and more new cases were filed in 2018. The two primary proxy advisory firms have also shown an enhanced focus since the 2017 decision on compensation awarded to outside directors.

With these cases in mind, focus on outside director compensation continues, and public companies especially should review their decision-making processes about discretionary stock equity plans and non-employee director compensation.

Stockholder claims concerning the conduct of directors generally are subject to review under the business judgment rule, where the presumption is that the board acted in good faith, on an informed basis and in the best interests of stockholders.

In cases where the business judgment rule applies, the court will not second-guess a board’s business decision.

Before the Investors Bancorp decision, this was the standard applied to cases challenging director compensation decisions, with a few exceptions. In the cases where the Delaware courts reviewed challenges to director compensation approved by directors themselves, the courts recognized a stockholder ratification defense for director compensation in cases in which stockholders had approved the following:

  • An equity plan that provides for fixed awards
  • The specific awards made under an equity plan
  • An equity plan that includes “self-executing” provisions—awards that are determined based on a formula specified in the plan without further discretion by the directors
  • An equity plan that includes “meaningful limits” on director compensation—a cap on the awards that could be made to nonemployee directors

In cases where a company can take advantage of the stockholder ratification defense, the company can seek dismissal of the stockholder claim under the business judgment rule.

In the Investors Bancorp case, the Delaware Supreme Court considered the scope of stockholder ratification of director compensation decisions for the first time in more than 50 years, and in doing so limited the ratification defense when directors make equity awards to themselves under an equity incentive plan.

The Delaware court determined that the more onerous rule—the “entire fairness” test—applies, where a plaintiff can show a majority of the board was interested or lacked independence regarding the decision, or would receive a personal financial benefit from the decision.

For equity grants awarded to directors under the plan, that test requires the board to prove equity incentive awards they grant themselves are fair to the company and its stockholders. The Delaware court found that while the stockholders in the Investors Bancorp case had approved the general parameters of the equity plan that contained a limit on the aggregate amount of stock awards that could be made to directors, they had not ratified the specific awards to directors and, therefore, the business judgment rule did not apply.

The decision therefore calls into question whether the ratification defense is still feasible for plans that contain only “meaningful limits” on director awards. The Delaware Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court to review under the entire fairness standard, and that case is currently pending.

Key Takeaways
Boards and compensation committees should consider the following to mitigate potential risks in implementing equity incentive plans or making awards to directors under existing equity incentive plans:

  • Careful consideration of peer group selection
  • Retention of a compensation consultant experienced in banking
  • Whether to include director compensation limits in equity plans
  • Ensuring that director compensation decisions are made after a robust process that accounts for market practices and peer group practices

And finally, boards and compensation committees should carefully describe the decision-making process and other key factors for equity awards to nonemployee directors in the company’s annual proxy statement.