3 Ways a Democratic Presidency Could Impact Executive Compensation

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., recently wrote, “Almost ten years ago, Congress directed federal regulators to impose new rules to address the flawed executive compensation incentives at big financial firms. But regulators still haven’t finalized (let alone implemented) a number of those key rules, including one that would claw back bonuses from bankers if their bets went bad in the long run. As President, I will appoint regulators who will actually do their job and finish these rules.”

Warren is referring to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was introduced in 2010 as a response to the 2008 financial crisis. The act contained over 2,300 pages of provisions, including a number that impact executive compensation, to be implemented over several years. A few provisions — like management say-on-pay, say-on-golden-parachutes, CEO pay ratio — have been implemented, while others like incentive-based compensation arrangements (§ 956), clawbacks (§ 954) and pay-versus-performance (§ 953(a)) remain in limbo.

In any Democratic presidency, incentive-based compensation (§ 956) may be the easiest provision to finalize. The 2016 proposal creates a general restriction for banks with more than $1 billion in assets on incentive compensation arrangements that encourage inappropriate risks caused by a covered person receiving excessive compensation that could lead to a material financial loss. As proposed, it is very prescriptive for banks with assets of $50 billion or more, requiring mandatory deferrals, a minimum clawback periods, ability for downward adjustments and forfeiture.

The final rules for § 956 were re-proposed in 2016, but regulators’ interest in the topic has been muted during President Donald Trump’s administration. There are other ways that executive compensation programs could be impacted by a Democratic president, of which Warren is one contender for the nomination. While not exhaustive, we see three potential changes — beyond § 956 — that could impact  executive compensation programs.

1. Increased Regulatory Oversight
In almost all scenarios, a Democratic presidency will be accompanied by an increase in regulation. The 2016 sales practices scandal at Wells Fargo & Co. brought incentives into the spotlight. The Federal Reserve Board has stressed the importance of firms having appropriate governance of incentive plan design and administration, and have audited the process and structure in place at banks. One key thing that firms can and should be doing, even if the party in power does not change, is implement a documented and thorough incentive compensation risk review process as part of a robust internal control structure. Having a process in place will be key in the event of regulatory scrutiny of your compensation programs.

2. Mandatory Deferrals
Warren re-introduced and expanded the concept of mandatory deferrals through her Accountable Capitalism Act of 2018. This proposed legislation restricts the sales of company shares by the directors and officers of U.S. corporations within five years of receiving them or within three years of a company stock buyback. Deferred compensation gives the bank the ability to adjust or eliminate compensation over time in the event of material financial restatements or fraudulent activity, and is sure to be a topic that will come up with a Democratic presidency.

While the concept is different from deferred compensation, many firms have introduced holding periods in their long-term incentive programs for executives. This strengthens the retentive qualities of the executive incentive program and provides some accounting benefits for the organization, making it something to consider adding to stock-based incentive plans.

3. Focus On More Than The Shareholder
The environmental, social and governance (ESG) framework has been a very hot topic in investment communities, with heavy-hitting institutional investors introducing policies relating to ESG topics. For example, BlackRock is removing companies generating more than 25% of revenues from thermal coal production from its discretionary active investment portfolios, and State Street Corp. announced that it will vote against board members for “consistently underperforming” in the firm’s ESG performance scoring system. Warren believes that companies should focus on “the long-term interests of all of their stakeholders — including workers — rather than on the short-term financial interests of Wall Street investors.” It remains to be seen exactly what future compensation plans for banking executives will look like, though the myopic focus on total shareholder return may become a thing of the past.

Many potential incentive compensation changes that are likely to occur under a Democratic presidency already exist in the marketplace, including holding periods for long-term incentive plans; incentive compensation risk review, including the internal control structure; mandatory deferrals and clawbacks; and aligning incentive plans with the long-term strategy of the organization. Directors should evaluate their bank’s current plans and processes and identify ways to tweak the programs to ensure their practices are sound, no matter who takes office in 2021.

Generational Shift Complicates Shareholder Succession

A challenge facing many community banks this new decade has nothing to do with public policy, the yield curve, regulation or technology.

A growing number of banks face an aging shareholder base, concentrated ownership and limited liquidity. This can lead to shareholder succession impositions when large shareholders want to exit their ownership position or an estate settlement creates a liquidity need.

Community banks have always been owned by local centers of influence, passed down through generations and thought of as both a financial investment and philanthropic participation in the community. But the societal aspect of bank ownership is not the same as the current ownership cedes to the younger generation, many of whom have moved away from home and see banking as an increasingly more digital experience.

Banking and securities regulations do not make the situation easier. There are parameters around a bank’s ability to issue stock in the local community to attract new shareholders. Banks are cautious of giving unknown investors a seat at the table, particularly institutional or activist owners, as they may only hold the stock for a defined, shorter period before seeking liquidity themselves. The bank itself can sometimes be a source of liquidity to repurchase stock from shareholders, but regulatory capital ratios may limit that capacity. Some advice for banks struggling with these issues includes the following:

Treat shareholder succession as a business initiative: Identifying issues before they occur, or a capital need before it becomes urgent, increases a bank’s flexibility. Boards should discuss shareholder liquidity issues, as some large owners may be sitting around the board table.

Investor relations is not just for large and liquid banks: Local banks are often owned by members of the local community. The legacy of family ownership is emotional, and large owners often do not want to “upset the apple cart” and force the bank to sell. Many may not realize that how they treat their position could impact the bank’s future. Some may not be open to discussing the issue, but others might appreciate the opportunity.

Address long-term liquidity in strategic planning: Under what conditions would the bank consider listing on a more liquid exchange, commencing a traditional public offering, or raising subordinated debt as a way to address shareholder succession? The owners of many closely held banks are wary of incurring dilution to their ownership stake but want to remain independent, which limits their options. For smaller banks, even upgrading to a slightly more liquid trading medium such as OTC Market Group’s OTCQX Banks market, may open the doors to investors that understand smaller, less-liquid situations and have capital to put to work.

Plan for shareholder liquidity as you would for balance sheet liquidity: It is helpful that directors and executives understand the bank’s capacity to repurchase shares, as the bank itself is often the first line of defense for an immediate liquidity need. Small bank holding company regulation gives community banks flexibility to leverage their capital structure by issuing debt at the holding company, which can be injected into the bank subsidiary as common equity. Creating an employee stock ownership plan or dividend reinvestment plan may help to manage and retain capital and dividend policy can also be critical.

The right answer is usually a combination of all of the above: There is no silver bullet for addressing shareholder liquidity in a smaller, more closely held bank; all of the discussed initiatives will play a part. Many banks get caught flat-footed after the fact, either faced with an estate settlement or a family with a large position seeking liquidity. Dealing with an urgent liquidity need, often in tight timing, limits the bank’s flexibility and options.

If a merger or sale is the right alternative, control that dialog: Some shareholders looking to exit may find the premium in a sale attractive relative to the desire of others for independence. It’s a worthwhile exercise for boards and executives to understand the bank’s value in a sale, as well as likely partners, even if a sale is only a remote possibility. This allows your bank to identify preferred partners and ascertain their ability to pay a competitive valuation independent of any urging from shareholders. Highlight those strategic alternatives to the board on a regular basis. If an urgent shareholder need forces the bank to seek a partner, your bank has already begun addressing these issues and building those relationships.

Shareholder succession issues can drive change and create uncertainty, risk and opportunity at community banks. Careful analysis and planning can help lead to a desired outcome for all involved.

A Valuable Lesson from the Best Bank You’ve Never Heard of


strategy-8-24-18.pngThere are a lot of places you would expect to find one of the highest performing banks in the country, but a place that wouldn’t make most lists is Springfield, Missouri—the third-largest city in the 18th-largest state.

Yet, that’s where you’ll find Great Southern Bancorp, a $4.6 billion regional bank that has produced the fifth best total all-time shareholder return among every publicly traded bank based in the United States.

Since going public in 1989, just two years before hundreds of Missouri banks and thrifts failed in the savings and loan crisis, Great Southern has generated a total shareholder return, the ultimate arbiter of corporate performance, of nearly 15,000 percent.

What has been the secret to Great Southern’s success?

There are a number of them, but one is that the Turner family, which has run Great Southern since 1974, owns a substantial portion of the bank’s outstanding common stock. Between CEO Joe Turner, his father and sister, the family controls more than a quarter of the bank’s shares, according to its latest proxy report, which places most of their net worth in the bank.

The importance of having “skin in the game” can’t be overstated when it comes to corporate performance. This is especially true in banking, where a combination of leverage and the frequent, unforgiving vicissitudes of the credit cycle renders the typical bank, as one of the seminal books on banking written over the past decade is titled, “fragile by design.”

The trick is to implement structural elements that combat this. And one of the most effective is skin in the game—equity ownership among executives—which more closely aligns the interests of executives with those of shareholders.

“Having a big investment in the company…gives you credibility with institutional investors,” says Turner. “When we tell them we’re thinking long-term, they believe us. We never meet with an investor that our family doesn’t own at least twice as much stock in the bank as they do.”

An interesting allegory that speaks to this is the way the Romans and English governed bridge builders many years ago, as Nassim Taleb wrote in his book Antifragile:

For the Romans, engineers needed to spend some time under the bridge they built—something that should be required of financial engineers today. The English went further and had the families of the engineers spend time with them under the bridge after it was built.

To me, every opinion maker needs to have ‘skin in the game’ in the event of harm caused by reliance on his information or opinion. Further, anyone producing a forecast or making an economic analysis needs to have something to lose from it, given that others rely on those forecasts.

The most important thing having skin in the game has done for the executives at Great Southern is the long-term approach to their family business. “Our dad turned a valuable asset [stock in the bank] over to me and my sister [a fellow director at the bank] and my goal, when I’m finished, is to turn that over to my kids and have it be worth a lot more,” says Turner.

This becomes especially evident when the economy is hitting on all cylinders. “When institutional investors and analysts…are rewarding explosive growth, you need to have a longer-term view,” says Turner. “For instance, the explosive growth you can get from acquisitions is great in terms of the short-term boost to your stock price, but over the longer term that type of thing can reduce your shareholder return.”

Having skin in the game also addresses the asymmetry in risk appetite that otherwise exists between management and shareholders, where the potential reward to management in short-term incentives from taking excessive risk outweighs the potential long-term threat to a bank’s solvency, a principal concern of shareholders.

A long-term mindset promoted by skin in the game also causes like-minded, long-term investors to flock to your stock. This is a point Warren Buffett has made in the past by noting that companies tend to “get the investors they deserve.”

“That point is probably right,” says Turner. “We have a much larger proportion of retail investors than a lot of other companies do. I understand where institutional, especially fund, investors are coming from. It’s great for them to say they’re long-term shareholders, but they have investors in their funds that open their statements every quarter and want to see gains. So it’s harder for big money managers to be truly long-term investors.… It’s a different story with retail investors, who, in my opinion, tend to be longer term by nature.”

This cuts to the heart of what Turner identifies as the biggest challenge to running a successful bank.

“The hardest thing is balancing different constituencies,” says Turner. “We have a mission statement that is to build winning relationships with our customers, associates, shareholders, and communities. What we’re talking about is building relationships that are balanced in a way that allow each of those constituencies to win.”

The moral of the story is that, much like bridge builders in ancient Roman and English times, one of the most effective ways to construct an antifragile bank is by putting skin in the game.

When the Gloves Come Off


shareholder-12-1-17.pngShareholder lawsuits are relatively common for the banking industry, but the reverse—a bank suing one of its shareholders—is fairly unique. On October 31, 2017, Nashville, Tennessee-based CapStar Financial Holdings, with $1.3 billion in assets, sued its second-largest shareholder, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. The bank alleges that the investor and his holding company, The Lawrence Group, violated the Change in Bank Control Act, which requires written notice and approval from the Federal Reserve before owning more than 10 percent of a financial institution, as well as a related Tennessee law. CapStar also maintains that Lawrence violated the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by failing to disclose plans to acquire additional CapStar stock.

Passing the 10 percent ownership mark without the proper approvals is more common than one might think, according to Jonathan Hightower, a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave LLP. And often the violators of these rules are directors who are simply enthusiastic about their bank’s stock and want more of it. “They’re interested in the bank. They may know of shares that are available in the community and buy them up without realizing they’ve crossed the threshold where they need regulatory approval,” says Hightower.

How the Fed interprets these regulations and the steps required of shareholders is a specialized area, adds Hightower. “Given that, the Fed’s approach, assuming there’s not an intentional violation, is more permissive than might be expected.” The Fed is unlikely to levy penalties against a shareholder acting in good faith.

Lawrence filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on November 13, 2017, and maintains that he has complied where necessary and that, as an individual investor, the Tennessee code requiring a bank holding company to acquire control of the bank isn’t relevant.

What’s unique in the CapStar case is that it’s the bank taking action against the investor, rather than the regulator. In a letter dated November 20, 2017, CapStar asked the Fed to reject Mr. Lawrence’s stake in the bank and require that Lawrence divest “all illegally acquired CapStar shares,” in addition to a request for a cease-and-desist order and the levying of civil money penalties against Lawrence.

Requiring Lawrence to divest will likely harm what is, in CapStar’s own words, a “thinly traded” stock, according to Stephen Scouten, a managing director at Sandler O’Neill + Partners. Without Lawrence’s acquisitions of large amounts of stock, “the stock would be appreciably lower than it is today,” says Scouten. The stock price rose 6.95 percent year-over-year as of November 27, 2017, and 17 percent in the three months in which Lawrence has been accumulating a sizeable number of shares.

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Filings by CapStar indicate that Lawrence attempted to acquire the bank in the summer of 2016. When that attempt was unsuccessful, CapStar alleges that Lawrence approached two of the bank’s largest stockholders to buy their combined 30 percent stake. That attempt also failed, and Lawrence began acquiring CapStar stock on the open market after the bank’s initial public offering last year. From August through October 2017, Lawrence rapidly increased his stake in CapStar from 6.2 to 10.2 percent, paying a total of $82.7 million for 4.6 million shares. CapStar alleges that Lawrence has “coveted control” of CapStar, and it’s easy to see how the bank arrived at that conclusion.

Lawrence is a long-term investor who appears to like what he sees in the Nashville market. He even recently purchased a home there. He’s certainly an experienced bank investor. He owns seven community banks, including two in the Nashville area: F&M Bank, with $1 billion in assets, and Tennessee Bank & Trust, formerly a division of $510 million asset Farmers Bank & Trust in Blytheville, Arkansas, which is also owned by Lawrence. “He’s got a lot of money to put to work, [and] he thinks banks are a good investment for his capital,” says Scouten. Right now, that looks to be as much as 15 percent of CapStar. Whether that turns into a full-fledged bid for the bank, as he sought in 2016, is anyone’s guess. Bank Director was unable to reach a representative of Gaylon Lawrence Jr., and CapStar CEO Claire Tucker declined to comment.

Bank boards frequently deal with active investors, and in most cases, Hightower recommends focusing on shareholder engagement and ensuring that large investors understand the broad strokes of the bank’s strategic plan. “More often than not, it’s people not understanding what they’ve invested in, and where it’s going,” he says.