About Me

This blog carries a series of posts and articles, mostly written by Anthony Fitzsimmons under the aegis of Reputability LLP, a business that is no longer trading as such. Anthony is a thought leader in reputational risk and its root causes, behavioural, organisational and leadership risk. His book 'Rethinking Reputational Risk' was widely acclaimed. Led by Anthony, Reputability helped business leaders to find, understand and deal with these widespread but hidden risks that regularly cause reputational disasters. You can contact Anthony via anthony.fitzsimmons At cranfield dot ac dot uk

Friday, 28 March 2014

Big bonuses lead to poorer performance, says new research

Groundbreaking new research, based on the study of hundreds of firms over almost 15 years, has challenged the widely held belief that pay packages including large bonuses translate into better performance and enhanced shareholder returns.

Almost ten years ago, Dan Ariely and colleagues reported some unexpected findings. Big bonuses produced worse performance. As the authors concluded, in their report for the Reserve Bank of Boston, “Our results challenge the assumption that increases in incentives necessarily lead to improvements in Performance”.

Commenting on the findings in 2010, we questioned whether these results, obtained from experiments on poor Indian villagers and broke MIT students, would translate to real life.

New research has answered that question “Yes” at least as regards the most generously paid business leaders.

Researchers Cooper, Gulen and Rau, respectively at the Universities of Utah, Purdue and Cambridge (England) took data on CEO earnings and corporate performance for all NYSE, AMEX and NASDAQ companies from 1994 to 2011. They looked for relationships between pay and performance.

The disparity of company types and sizes meant that some adjustments were needed to make meaningful comparisons, so they measured what I will call generosity of pay after adjusting for the company size and the industry type.

The results are stark. For the top 10% of CEOs by generosity of pay relative to their peers, who typically receive more than 80% of their pay in incentives for performance, CEOs earned negative returns of about 5% over one year and 9% over three years, again relative to their peers. To put values on these percentages, $21million of extra generosity in CEO pay translated into a typical annual loss of $1.4billion in stock market valuation. These CEOs also led their businesses to a fall in Return on Assets.

The researchers dug deep for correlations between different elements of CEO pay and the effect on the stock market valuation. They found that for generously-paid CEOs, incentive pay was closely - and negatively - correlated with stock market valuation and ROA, with stock options being the key predictor. Fixed pay was not found to be a predictor of stock price rises and falls.

The team went on to investigate various theories. They began by identifying “over-confident” CEOs which they defined as those who retained un-exercised but exercisable in-the-money stock options.

There was evidence that CEOs with the most generous pay are typically “overconfident”, at least by this definition, and are more frequently involved in acquisitions than their less confident peers. It is a dismal truth that acquisitions are an exceptionally good incinerator of shareholder value for the acquiring company. As Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School put it years ago:
“The weight of research evidence indicates that the majority of corporately sponsored acquisitions, alliances, new ventures and business re-definitions fail to create value.”
Markets understand this: they react more negatively to mergers announced by highly paid CEOs.

The researchers eventually settled on the suggestion that overconfident CEOs accept large amounts of incentive pay and then try to realise the incentives by embarking on value-destroying activities that reduce future firm performance.

This may well be the case but there are other possible explanations. It is not improbable that many of these ‘overconfident’ CEOs were also dominant. ‘Roads to Ruin’, the Cass Business School report for Airmic and Reputability’s follow-up study ‘Deconstructing failure found that the behaviour of dominant CEOs was a regular cause of severe trouble. An important mechanism, amongst others, is that a dominant CEO’s dominant behaviour can easily make the firm dysfunctional, leaving its leaders unknowingly operating in the dark as regards important information and blind to alternative views that may be better than their own.

The lesson for risk professionals and remuneration committees is however simple. Employing a CEO who demands a very generous pay package can be dangerous to shareholders’ wealth, especially if incentives such as stock options form a large proportion of pay and even more so if he has a history of not exercising exercisable in-the-money options.  Those risks need to be identified and actively managed.

Anthony Fitzsimmons
Reputability LLP

Anthony Fitzsimmons is Chairman of Reputability LLP and, with the late Derek Atkins, author of “Rethinking Reputational Risk: How to Manage the Risks that can Ruin Your Business, Your Reputation and You

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Pay Contests Are About Status, Not Talent

We are delighted to welcome a Guest Blog from Margaret Heffernan, author of 'A Bigger Prize' and 'Wilful Blindness'

To get good people, you must pay competitive salaries. That's the argument of boards and compensation committees across the company. But it isn't true.

Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and the business partner of Warren Buffett, has argued just the opposite. "People should take way less than they're worth when they're favoured by life," he says, further arguing that when you have risen high enough, you have a "moral duty to be underpaid - not to get all you can, but to actually be underpaid."

The board of Barclays, the Co-op and companies across the country should take note. The competition over pay has nothing to do with talent.

By demonstration, Munger pointed out that the CEO of Costco - the second largest retailer in the U.S. - quite radically underpaid its CEO, when compared to the pay of the CEOs of Walmart, Home Depot and Target. Munger similarly argues that company directors - typically people who are already successful - should not expect high pay for their service. And it's striking that Berkshire Hathaway itself pays its directors $900 for each meeting attended in person and just $300 for those who simply call in.

Munger is very clear that the fate of the company and its leadership should be tightly coupled. Romans, he argued, had to stand under the bridges they built as the scaffolding was being removed. Similarly, no one should build a company and be able to walk away, their fortune intact regardless of what happened next.

The old argument that pay must be competitive implies that, in a global market place for talent, you can't get great people without high pay. But Munger demonstrates what we all know: that this isn't true. In fact, the opposite is true: if you expect people to work for money, then that's all they're working for. And that is never good enough.

We know this. Euan Sutherland as much as confessed it when he complained that details of his pay were leaked. Why would he mind the leak if he weren't implicitly ashamed that he flourished even as the Co-op struggled? The competition for high pay isn't about a market for talent; it's about a contest for status and importance: my pay's bigger than your pay. That's why transparency has made pay more problematic than ever; accepting less than your peers looks like failure in the business pecking order.

Buffett and Munger are quite fond of understatement and they both clearly enjoy an absence of flash. They're secure in their success and confident enough of their own talent that they don't need stratospheric pay packets to prove it. Mike Darrington, the former boss of Greggs has a similar style. His pay was modest compared to his peers and he's been a consistent critic of lavish pay. They all call the bluff of compensation committees too weak and often themselves too greedy to say 'no'.

Let's call this what it is - a contest for status - and give up pretending it has anything to do with business.

© Margaret Heffernan 2014

The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author and not necessarily the views of Reputability.  www.reputability.co.uk