Northwestern Corp’s CEO pay ratio is 22 to 1, which they acknowledge is up from 19 to 1 the year before. Northwestern has been voluntarily disclosing their CEO pay ratio since 2010 (i.e., since Dodd-Frank was adopted), stating that they are committed to internal pay equity. Over that time period, the CEO’s pay has ranged from 18 to 24 times the median employee pay. Although they calculated the ratio in compliance with the SEC requirements this year, at least for the first few years that they made the disclosure their methodology for calculating the ratio probably varied from the SEC’s requirements, since the SEC’s proposed rules weren’t issued until 2013.
Northwestern provides electricity and natural gas in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska and has a little over 1,500 employees. The disclosure includes a tabular presentation comparing the CEO’s pay to the median employee’s pay by component of pay (base salary, equity awards, non-equity incentive compensation, change in pension value and NQDC earnings, and all other compensation). The CEO’s total compensation was approximately $2.8 million and the median employee’s compensation was just over $124,000.
Northwestern’s disclosure notes that they used total cash compensation to identify the median employee. They further note that they believe this is appropriate because they don’t grant equity broadly and only 7% of their employees receive annual equity awards (how disappointing). Interestingly, they did not annualize compensation paid to employees who worked only part of the year.
Range Resources has the highest ratio (77 to 1) and the shortest disclosure of the four that I’ve highlighted in this series of blog entries. Their disclosure is so short I can reproduce it for you in full:
As a result of the recently adopted rules under the Dodd-Frank Act, beginning with our 2018 proxy statement, the SEC will require disclosure of the CEO to median employee pay ratio.
Mr. Ventura had 2016 annual total compensation of $9,862,925 as reflected in the Summary Compensation Table included in this Proxy Statement. Our median employee’s annual total compensation for 2016 was $127,938. As a result, we estimate that Mr. Ventura’s 2016 annual total compensation was approximately 77 times that of our median employee.
Although I suspect that 77:1 is lower than many of the ratios we’ll see once all public companies are making this disclosure, but perhaps given its steepness, they felt that no good could come of belaboring the point. Best to be quick about it and move on.
Range Resources is a natural gas, gas liquids, and oil company and they have close to 800 employees.
Annotated Sample CEO Pay Ratio Disclosures
If you are involved with calculating your company’s CEO pay ratio, don’t miss the Pay Ratio & Proxy Disclosure Conference, which will be held on October 17 in advance of the NASPP Conference. Everyone who registers for this program can also attend three pre-event webcasts on preparing for the disclosure and will receive annotated sample disclosures in PDF and Word. Don’t wait to register—the first webcast is scheduled for July 20 and the early-bird rate is only available through July 28.
When I presented for the Western PA NASPP chapter last Wednesday, I told the group I expected the House to vote any day on the Financial CHOICE Act. And I was right—the House approved the Act the very next day. The CHOICE Act would repeal or weaken much of the Dodd-Frank Act, including repealing the CEO pay ratio disclosure.
Is It a Law Now?
No way; the Act still has miles to go before it becomes law. It has to be introduced in the Senate, pass through committee in the Senate, be voted on (and passed) by the full Senate, and then be signed into law. And the Act is very controversial; it is much broader than just the compensation-related provisions of Dodd-Frank, making significant changes to banking and financial regulation. To give you an idea of how broad it is, the Morrison & Foerster memo summarizing the Act is four pages long and doesn’t even mention repeal of the CEO pay ratio.
According to Morrison & Foerster, passing the Act as it stands now is likely to be an uphill battle:
Senate passage would require a 60 vote majority and Republicans control only 52 seats. There is no indication that any of the 46 Democrats, or 2 independents that caucus with the Democrats, will support the measure as passed by the House. As a result, it is likely that fundamental changes to the CHOICE Act would be required in order for it, or portions of it, to pass the Senate, be reconciled with the House bill and become law.
As reported by govtrack.us, Skopos Labs (a provider of predictions about legislation) is currently giving the Act a 25% chance of passing (but hey, that’s up from 1% the first time I looked at the prediction).
What Does It Do?
A lot of what the Act does is well outside the sphere of equity compensation. Here is what it does in the areas of Dodd-Frank that I am most interested in:
Repeals the CEO pay ratio disclosure
Limits Say-on-Pay votes to years in which substantial changes are made to exec pay packages (eliminating the Say-on-Pay-Frequency vote).
Repeals the hedging policy disclosure
Limits Dodd-Frank clawbacks to situations where the officer has control or authority over the financial reporting that triggered restatement
This Cooley memo provides a thorough list of all of the provisions of the Act.
CHOICE stands for “Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs.” In the words of Matt Levine, a blogger for Bloomberg View:
The sheer art of naming something “Choice,” but “Choice” is an acronym that resolves to include “Hope”! Imagine if you could create hope by adjusting bank capital requirements. It is daring, inventive, impressive stuff. It’s no USA Patriot Act—what is?—but it is an achievement in acronyming that would make the financial industry proud.
The glimmer of hope that the CEO Pay Ratio will be delayed or repealed continues to dim (although it hasn’t been completely snuffed out yet).
The SEC Delay
The comment letters submitted to the SEC about delaying the effective date were overwhelmingly opposed, although most were form letters and not nearly as many were received as on the proposed regs. More importantly, the SEC may not currently have enough commissioners to effect a delay. Although a new chair has been appointed, in his recent Equity Expert Podcast with us, Steve Seelig of Willis Towers Watson explains that three commissioners are needed for a quorum. The SEC currently has only three total commissioners (including the chair); a commissioner could prevent a matter from being voted on just by not showing up for the vote. One of the current commissioners is a Democrat (and even worked with Senator Dodd at one point) and may not be supportive of a delay.
Steve noted, however, that even if a delay can’t be effected, the SEC staff could issue interpretive relief that would make it easier to calculate the ratio). Steve had a lot of insightful things to say about the ratio; the podcast is definitely worth a listen.
The Financial Choice Act
The Financial Choice Act has already passed through the House Financial Services Committee, only a month after it was introduced by Jeb Hensarling (R-TX). This act would dismantle or weaken many provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, including a full repeal of the CEO Pay Ratio. But even with the quick passage through committee, this act has a ways to go and the odds of it passing are still low.
Back in February, it seemed like repeal of the CEO pay ratio disclosure was only a matter of time and that when it goes, it might take a lot of the rest of Dodd-Frank with it (see “More Challenges to Dodd-Frank,” February 9). But now the GOP’s push for a repeal seems to be losing steam.
Piwowar’s Request for Comments
As I noted on February 9, SEC Chairman Piwowar has requested comments from companies that have encountered unexpected challenges in implementing the CEO pay ratio. Comments are posted to the SEC’s website as they are received: so far, the SEC has received over 60 individual comment letters and a form letter (of which there have been over 3,000 submissions). The overwhelming majority of comments, including the over 3,000 form letters, are opposed to a further delay in the implementation of the rule. Given the veritable wealth of information on executive pay that is included in the proxy, it is surprising to me that anyone feels they need to know the ratio of CEO to median employee pay to figure out that CEOs are overpaid but apparently a lot of people really do want to know this. Go figure.
If you have encountered challenges (expected or unexpected) in preparing for the disclosure, now is a good time to tell the SEC about them. Comments are due by March 23 but, in my experience, most governmental agencies will still consider comments received after the deadline. If you are interested in reading about the challenges other companies have encountered, check out the letters from Borg WarnerFlushing Financial, Stein Mart, and Finish Line.
Not a Priority?
Trump’s executive order requiring review of all “existing laws, treaties, regulations, guidance, reporting and recordkeeping requirements, and other Government policies” seemed to target Dodd-Frank along with other legislation (see “Dodd-Frank Under Scrutiny“). But, as reported in an article on Bloomberg (“Dismantling Dodd-Frank May Have to Wait“), repeal of Dodd-Frank was notably absent from Trump’s priority-setting speech to Congress on February 28.
Financial Choice Act a Long Shot
The Bloomberg article also noted that there is significant opposition to the Financial Choice Act. This act would repeal or weaken much of Dodd-Frank, but one analyst quoted in the article gives it only a 10-20% chance of passing.
It’s Not Over Until the Secretary of the Treasury Sings
The Executive Order calling for a review of all existing laws, regulations, etc. also requires the Secretary of Treasury and the Financial Stability Oversight Council to report their findings to the Administration by early June. Until then, there’s still a chance the rule may be delayed or repealed.
As I mentioned in my blog on Tuesday, we are starting to see some movement towards repeal or revision of at least parts of the Dodd-Frank Act. The Administration’s executive order isn’t the only action that has been taken; here are a couple of other developments:
CEO Pay Ratio—The SEC Weighs In
On Monday, February 6, Acting SEC Chair Michael Piwowar issued a statement on the CEO pay ratio disclosure. Piwowar requests comments on “unexpected challenges that issuers have experienced as they prepare for compliance with the rule and whether relief is needed,” and encourages detailed comments to be submitted within 45 days. Piwowar also notes that he has directed the SEC staff to “reconsider the implementation of the rule based on any comments submitted and to determine as promptly as possible whether additional guidance or relief may be appropriate.”
While that’s pretty vague, is does indicate that, in addition to the Secretary of the Treasury and the Financial Stability Oversight Council, the SEC is also looking at the CEO pay ratio rule. Even so, it’s hard to say what this means. As we all know, and as an article in the Wall Street Journal notes (“GOP-Led SEC Considers Easing Pay-Gap Disclosure Rule of Dodd-Frank“), it is difficult for the SEC to move quickly on matters like this:
Republicans on the SEC could be stymied by the commission’s own procedures on the pay-ratio rule because undoing a regulation is handled by an often lengthy process that is similar to creating one. It also is difficult for the SEC to delay it outright, because of the commission’s depleted ranks. There are just two sitting commissioners—Mr. Piwowar and Kara Stein, a Democrat—meaning the SEC is politically deadlocked on most matters. Ms. Stein on Monday signaled opposition to efforts to ease the pay rule. “It’s problematic for a chair to create uncertainty about which laws will be enforced,” she said.
And Then There’s Congress
An article in Bloomberg/BNA reports that the Financial Choice Act is likely to be reintroduced into Congress this year (“Dodd-Frank Rollback Bill Expected in February, Duffy Says“). Originally introduced last year, this bill would repeal or restrict major parts of the Dodd-Frank Act, including reducing the frequency of Say-on-Pay votes, limiting application of the clawback provisions, and repealing the CEO pay ratio and hedging disclosures. Jenn Namazi blogged on the Act last year (see “Post Election: Things to Watch – Part I” and “Part 2“).
The Financial Choice Act is bigger than Dodd-Frank. The bill would also require a joint resolution of Congress before any “major” rulemaking by the SEC and a number of other agencies could go into effect. Mark Borges notes in his blog on CompensationStandards.com (“Acting SEC Chair Weighs in on CEO Pay Ratio Rule“) that the bill is expected to require the major proxy advisory firms to register with the SEC and, among other things, disclose potential conflicts of interest.
Poll: What Are You Doing?
It’s hard to know what to do in response to all this. Preparing for the CEO pay ratio disclosure requires a lot of time and resources, which most on the corporate side would view as wasted if the disclosure is eliminated. But if the disclosure isn’t eliminated, stalling preparations now could result in an implementation time crunch.
If you’re feeling curious about how equity plan proposals are performing with shareholder votes, today’s blog has answers. Semler Brossy recently released their 2016 report on Trends in Equity Plan Proposals. Keep reading for some of the highlights.
Upward Trend in Failed Say-on-Pay Votes?
The number of companies each proxy cycle that have failed to obtain say-on-pay (“SOP”) approval from shareholders has remained fairly constant since SOP became mandatory 2011. This time last year, only two of the Russell 3,000 companies had failed their SOP vote. This year, that number has increased to five companies so far. Does this signify an uptick in SOP failures? It appears so, because the number of companies with failed votes so far in 2016 amounts to 3.5%, marking the first time more than 3% of Russell 3000 companies have failed at this time in the cycle to obtain an affirmative vote. Whether this is an anomaly year, or an indicator of a trend, time will tell.
Correlation Between Affirmative Say-on-Pay and Stock Plan Proposal Approvals
One correlation that appears to be rising is that companies who receive a pass Say-on-Pay vote also receive strong support for their equity plan proposals. Since SOP was adopted, the percentage of equity plan proposals that receive affirmative support relative to passing SOP votes has steadily increased (from 83% in 2011 to 90% in 2015). According to the Semler Brossy report,
Similarly, average vote support for equity plans at companies that receive an ISS ‘For’ recommendation has increased over time; this may suggest that ISS voting policies have become well-aligned with shareholder preferences
Companies that fail Say on Pay tend to have significantly lower support for their equity plan proposals, indicating that shareholders are assessing both proposals under similar lenses
A couple of final data points that seem to bring this all full circle are that ISS has recommended that shareholders vote “Against” Say-on-Pay at 10% of the companies it’s assessed so far in 2016, and, on top of that, shareholder support was 32% lower at companies with an ISS “Against” vote. This seems to suggest that companies looking for shareholder support in other areas, such as equity plan proposals, are more likely to gain shareholder support when ISS has recommended an affirmative Say-on-Pay vote. At minimum, there is an intertwining of all these factors and how they drive shareholder support.
For more interesting Say-on-Pay and equity plan proposal trends, view the full Semler Brossy report.
This week the SEC announced a settled enforcement action against the former CFO of Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc. At issue were bonuses the former CFO received within 12 months of various financial filings containing results that the company was later required to restate. Using Section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxlely Act of 2002 (SOX 304), the SEC pursued the clawback of $11,789 in bonuses from the former CFO.
As we await final clawback rules from the SEC (which originate from Dodd-Frank and would apply to national securities exchanges), it’s important to remember that the SEC already has the present ability to enforce clawbacks in certain situations under SOX 304. The SOX provisions apply only to CEOs and CFOs and the courts have determined that only the SEC has the power to enforce clawbacks under SOX. One common misunderstanding about SOX 304 centers on “misconduct.” A Latham & Watkins memo once described SOX 304 as follows: “The statute states that, in the event an issuer is required to prepare an accounting restatement caused by “misconduct,” the CEO and the CFO “shall” reimburse the company for any bonus or other incentive-based or equity-based compensation, and any profits from the sale of the issuer’s securities, received during the year following the issuance of the misstated financial statements.” The memo later explained that the misconduct does not necessarily need to be on the part of the CEO or CFO who is subject to the clawback, a fact sometimes overlooked in our view of the type of misconduct that would trigger a clawback.
The recent SEC enforcement in the case of the former MBI CFO is a prime example that the SEC appears to have determined the misconduct by someone or something other than the person subject to the clawback (the CFO) as a legitimate grounds to demand the repayment of the CFO’s compensation. In this case, the former CFO had to return $11,789 in bonuses, but the SEC did not allege misconduct on his part. They did, however, allege that by not voluntarily returning his incentive compensation once the restatements occurred, he had violated SOX 304. It’s important to understand that in order for the circumstances for a clawback to be ripe, misconduct specifically by the CEO or CFO does not need to be present. Misconduct by someone or something else leading to a restatement can be enough to require the clawback of incentive compensation under SOX 304.
It’s important for companies to evaluate the circumstances regarding any restatement to ensure that appropriate measures have been taken to clawback the appropriate compensation from the CEO and CFO under SOX 304.
The SEC’s proposed clawback rulemaking resulting from Dodd-Frank will require national securities exchanges to adopt standards that, among other things, expand the scope of clawbacks – making them applicable to more individuals and for a longer period of time. The types of compensation subject to the clawback will be more limited under the proposed rules. These rules will not replace SOX 304; the SEC can still continue to rely on SOX 304 as means to enforce clawbacks. For full details on the proposed rules, visit the NASPP Alert on this topic.
Last Wednesday, the SEC proposed the last set of compensation-related rules required under Dodd-Frank: clawback policies. This is one of those things where the SEC can’t directly require companies to implement clawback provisions, so instead, they are proposing rules that would require the NYSE and NASDAQ to add the requirement to their listing standards for exchange-traded companies.
The requirements for clawback policies under Dodd-Frank are much broader than under SOX (which required misconduct and applied only to the CEO and CFO). Here’s the gist of the SEC’s Dodd-Frank proposal:
Applies to all officers (generally the same group subject to Section 16) and former officers
Clawback is triggered by any material noncompliance with financial reporting standards, regardless of whether intent, fraud, or misconduct is involved
Applies only to incentive compensation contingent on the financial results that are subject to the restatement (interestingly, this includes awards in which vesting is contingent on TSR or stock price targets)
The amount of compensation that would be recovered is the excess of the amount paid over what the officer is entitled to based on the restated financials.
In the case of awards in which vesting is contingent on TSR or stock price targets, the company would have to estimate the impact of the error on the stock price. Which seems a little crazy to me. But I didn’t take a single math, science, economic, or business course in college so my understanding of what drives stock price performance is most charitably described as “rudimentary.” Perhaps this is more straightforward than I think.
In the case of equity awards, if the shares haven’t been sold, the company would simply recover the shares. If the shares have been sold, the company would have to recover the sale proceeds (good luck with that). If you weren’t in favor of ownership guidelines and post-vesting holding periods for executives before, this might change your mind, possession being nine-tenths of the law and all. Check out our recent webcasts on these topics (“Stock Ownership Guidelines” and “Post-Vest Holding Periods“)
In addition to requiring a clawback policy, the SEC has also proposed a number of disclosures related to that policy:
The policy itself would be filed with the SEC as an exhibit to Form 10-K.
Companies would be required to disclose whether a restatement that triggered recovery of compensation has occurred in the past year.
If a restatement has occurred, the company must disclose the amount of compensation recoverable as a result of the restatement and the amount of this compensation that remains unrecovered as of the end of the year. For officers for whom recoverable compensation remains outstanding for more the 180 days, the company must disclose their names and the amounts recoverable from them.
For each person for whom the company decides not to pursue recovery of compensation, the company must disclose the name of the person, the amount recoverable, and a brief description of the reason the company decided not to pursue recovery.
As expected (and as I blogged last week), the SEC has issued a proposal for the pay-for-performance disclosure required under Dodd-Frank. Proxy disclosures aren’t really my gig, so I don’t have a lot more to say about this topic. Luckily, Mike Melbinger of Winston & Strawn provided a great bullet-point summary of the proposed disclosure in his blog on CompensationStandards.com. I’m sure he won’t mind if I “borrow” it.
The proposed rules rely on Total Shareholder Return (TSR) as the basis for reporting the relationship between executive compensation and the company’s financial performance.
Based on the explicit reference to “actually paid” in Section 14(i), the proposed rules exclude unvested stock grants and options, thus continuing the trend to reporting realized pay. Executive compensation professionals will need to sharpen their pencils to explain the relationship between these figures and those shown in the Summary Compensation Table.
For equity-based compensation, companies would use the fair market value on date of vesting, rather than estimated grant date fair market value, as used in the SCT.
The proposed rules also would require the reporting and comparison of cumulative TSR for last 5 fiscal years (with a description of the calculations).
The proposed rules would require a comparison of the company’s TSR against that of a selected peer group.
The proposed rules would require separate reporting for the CEO and the others NEOs—allowing use of an average figure for the other NEOs.
The proposed rules would require disclosure in an interactive data format—XBRL.
Compensation actually paid would not include the actuarial value of pension benefits not earned during the applicable year.
The proposed rules would phase in of the disclosure requirements. For example, in the first year for which the requirements are applicable [2018?], disclosure would be required for the last 3 years only.
The proposed rules exclude foreign private issuers and emerging growth companies, but not smaller reporting companies. However, the proposed rules would phase in the reporting requirements for smaller companies, require only three years of cumulative reporting, and not require reporting amounts attributable to pensions or a comparison to peer group TSR.
A Few More Thoughts
In the NASPP’s last Domestic Stock Plan Design Survey (co-sponsored by Deloitte Consulting), usage of TSR targets for performance awards increased to 43% of respondents. With this new disclosure requirement, will even more companies jump on the TSR-bandwagon?
At least there’s one bit of good news: the disclosure covers only the NEOs, not a broader group of officers as was originally feared.
To learn more about the proposed regs, check out our NASPP alert, which includes a number of practitioner memos. The memo from Pay Governance includes a nifty table comparing the SEC’s definition of “actual” pay to the SCT definition of pay, traditional definitions of realized and realizable pay, and the ISS definition of pay.
It’s beginning to look this is going to be the year of Dodd-Frank rulemaking at the SEC. We may have the CEO pay-ratio disclosure rules by the end of the year, the SEC recently proposed rules for hedging policy disclosures, and now the SEC appears poised to propose the pay-for-performance disclosure rules this week.
Readers will recall that Dodd-Frank requires the SEC to promulgate rules requiring public companies to disclose how executive compensation related to company financial performance (see my blog entry, “Beyond Say-on-Pay,” August 5, 2010). In his April 24 blog on TheCorporateCounsel.net, Broc Romanek noted that the SEC has calendared an open Commission meeting for this Wednesday, April 29, to propose the new rules.
Broc’s Eight Cents
Broc offered eight points of analysis on this disclosure:
1. Companies can get the data and crunch the numbers. I don’t think that the actual implementation itself will be difficult.
2. But I think what could be particularly worrisome is having yet another metric to figure out what the CEO got paid and trying to explain all of it.
3. You know how companies have different schemes for granting equity, including type and timing. If the rules tend to try to fit everyone into a narrow bucket in order to try to line everyone up for comparability, and a company’s program doesn’t quite fit neatly into it, then the disclosure can get even more complicated.
4. There are two elements: compensation and financial performance. What is meant by “financial performance” for example? Maybe the SEC will just ask for stock price, maybe they’ll go broader.
5. A tricky part likely will be the explanation of what it all means—and how it works with the Summary Compensation Table.
6. I don’t think it will be difficult to produce the “math” showing the relationship of realized/realizable pay relative to TSR and other financial metrics, so long as:
– There’s a tight definition of realized pay
– We know what period to measure TSR (and if multiple periods can be used)
– We know what other performance measures can be included (if any) and if they can be as prominent in the disclosure as TSR
7. Another area of potential difficulty is explaining why there is not a tight or tighter correlation with TSR (“we use metrics other than TSR to drive our compensation; thus, the correlation is not very strong; on the other hand, our compensation is based on Revenue Growth and EBITDA Margin, and as Exhibit II demonstrates, the correlation is very significant”).
In addition, Dodd-Frank has no requirement for a relative ranking, and companies will need to decide if TSR and Pay should be put in some type of relative context (“relative to our peers, our realizable pay was well below the peers; so even though compensation is not tightly aligned with stock price performance the last 3 years, we did not pay our bums very much).
8. I think what may be the most difficult to address is a requirement to discuss what the Compensation Committee plans to change—and why is it now that it has performed the analysis?
Let’s Make It a Dime; Here’s My Two Cents
I’m not sure that the problem with executive compensation is that companies aren’t disclosing enough information about it. Isn’t this what the CD&A is for? Isn’t this why the stock performance graph is included with the executive compensation disclosures?
Moreover, does anyone think that any company will just come out and say that their executive compensation is not based on or tied to company performance in any way? I’m just not sure that public companies need one more disclosure to try to convince their shareholders that the amount of compensation they are paying to their executives is justified by the company’s performance.