On Wednesday, June 10, Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner outlined the Obama administration’s new proposals on executive compensation. The proposals focused on greater independence of corporate compensation committees and giving shareholders a nonbinding vote on executive compensation, commonly known as ‘say on pay’ provisions. Geithner outlined five guiding principals for executive compensation, namely:
- compensation plans should properly measure and reward performance;
- compensation should be structured to account for the time horizon of risks by aligning executive (and highly compensated individual) pay with long-term value creation;
- compensation should be aligned with sound risk management;
- golden parachutes and supplemental retirement packages should properly align the interests of executives with the interests of shareholders; and
- the compensation setting process should promote transparency and accountability.
Geithner promoted the administration’s support for legislation requiring greater compensation committee independence for companies listed on the national securities exchanges. The proposed legislation would require compensation committee members to meet the stringent independence standards required of audit committee members under the Sarbanes Oxley Act. In addition, the proposed legislation would provide compensation committees with the right to (i) hire compensation consultants, (ii) hire legal counsel, and (iii) require each company to “appropriately” fund the compensation committee to allow it to execute its independent compensation oversight responsibilities.
In addition, Geithner promoted the administration’s support for legislation requiring non-binding ‘say on pay’ votes by shareholders. The legislation would require all public companies to include a proposal to allow shareholders to approve or disapprove of the compensation arrangements listed in a company’s annual proxy statement. It is unclear whether the proposed legislation would require annual non-binding shareholder votes to affirm previously approved executive compensation plans.
Noticeably absent from the newly announced proposals were the threatened executive compensation caps similar to those that the Treasury Department imposed on the largest recipients of TARP funds in February. According to Geithner, the proposed legislation seeks to avoid compensation caps or precise prescriptions for how companies should set compensation.
Less than a day after Geithner announced the administration’s executive compensation proposals, however, Rep. Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and other committee Democrats indicated that they were less interested in merely reforming the independence of the compensation committee and requiring non-binding resolutions. Rep. Frank stated that he would prefer a bill that altered the structure of executive pay. Rep. Frank flatly rejected the administration’s “hope” that compensation committee independence would lead to greater oversight and curtail excessive risk taking. In addition, Rep. Brad Sherman voiced his support for binding ‘say on pay’ shareholder votes.
To its credit, the administration’s proposals have the full support of both FED Chairman Ben Bernanke and SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro. In addition, many commentators have voiced relief and support for the seemingly modest executive compensation proposals. It is clear, however, that some of the Congressional Democrats will require more convincing before they can sign-off on the executive compensation proposals.