by Cydney Posner
As reported in the WSJ, a new study from corporate-governance research firm MSCI showed that, over the long term, there was a significant misalignment between CEO pay and stock-price performance. The study looked at CEO pay relative to total shareholder return for around 800 CEOs at more than 400 large- and mid-sized U.S. companies over a decade (2006 to 2015) . For the companies surveyed, the study found, on average, that CEO pay and performance had an inverse relationship; according to the WSJ, “MSCI found that $100 invested in the 20% of companies with the highest-paid CEOs would have grown to $265 over 10 years. The same amount invested in the companies with the lowest-paid CEOs would have grown to $367.” In light of how deeply embedded the concept of performance-based pay is among compensation consultants, boards, proxy advisory firms and institutional holders, characterizing that result as counter-intuitive might be considered an understatement.
What accounts for these stunning results? The WSJ concluded that the study “results call into question a fundamental tenet of modern CEO pay: the idea that significant slugs of stock options or restricted stock, especially when the size of the award is also tied to company performance in other ways, helps drive better company performance, which in turn will improve results for shareholders. Equity incentive awards now make up 70% of CEO pay in the U.S.” Fortune, reporting on the same study, quotes MSCI to similar effect: “‘[W]e found little evidence to show a link between the large proportion of pay that such awards represent and long-term company stock performance. In fact, even after adjusting for company size and sector, companies with lower total summary CEO pay levels more consistently displayed higher long-term investment returns.’”
According to Fortune, MSCI also attributed the “misalignment, in part, [to] the Securities and Exchange Commission’s disclosure rules that focus on annual reporting instead of long-term results. It suggests that a CEO’s cumulative pay and performance data over his or her entire tenure should also be taken into account to reduce reliance on figures that only consider the short-term.” The WSJ reported that the study authors recommended that the SEC modify its disclosure requirements to show “cumulative incentive pay over long periods, to help illustrate a CEO’s pay relative to longer-term performance.”
SideBar: Could it be that these results support the thesis of two academics in a recent essay in the Harvard Business Review? In their essay, the academics contend that performance-based pay for CEOs makes absolutely no sense: research on incentives and motivation suggests that the nature of a CEO’s work is unsuited to performance-based pay. Moreover, “performance-based pay can actually have dangerous outcomes for companies that implement it.” According to the academics, research has shown that, while performance-based pay works well for routine tasks, the types of work performed by CEOs are typically not routine; performance-related incentives, the authors argue, are actually “detrimental when the [task] is not standard and requires creativity.” Where innovative, non-standard solutions were needed or learning was required, research “results showed that a large percentage of variable pay hurt performance.” Why not, they propose, pay top executives a fixed salary only? (See this PubCo post.) Similarly, as discussed in this PubCo post, a New Yorker columnist concurs with the contention that performance pay does not really work for CEOs because the types of tasks that a CEO performs, such as deep analysis or creative problem solving, are typically not susceptible to performance incentives: “paying someone ten million dollars isn’t going to make that person more creative or smarter.’” In addition, the argument goes, performance is often tied to goals that CEOs don’t really control, like stock price (see this PubCo post and this news brief.)