Why Canadian CEO pay has soared over the past decadeJanet McFarland | The Globe and Mail
When shareholders of Canada’s big banks opened their proxy voting forms in early 2008, they found a striking new proposal on the ballot. Submitted by a small ethical mutual fund company, the resolution called on banks to give investors an annual vote on how executive pay was designed.
Bank boards initially opposed the motion as an intrusion into boards’ powers to set executive level pay. But within a year, a wave of companies bowed to pressure and agreed to introduce the votes, ushering in a decade of change in executive compensation design in Canada.
Since the financial crisis, measures have been introduced to increase transparency, better align executive returns with those enjoyed by shareholders and curb the worst excesses in chief executive pay.
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SHIFTING PERFORMANCE GOALS
The shift into share units over the past decade also means that compensation rewards shorter-term performance, despite frequent discussion about the importance of focusing management on longer-term, sustainable growth. Stock options are typically exercisable over 10 years, creating a long time lag between granting and cashing out, while share units typically pay out in cash at the end of three years.
Whether an unintended consequence, or simply an unavoidable trade-off, the shift into share units has reduced the definition of “long-term” compensation.
Yvan Allaire, chair of the Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations who wrote a recent paper on pay trends, believes share units provide a medium-term incentive at best, and a muddled short-term incentive at worst.
With most CEOs getting share unit grants each year, a portion is also vesting each year, so executives never have a single discrete three-year performance cycle. Instead, the performance goals are constantly shifting as a new target comes to fruition each year.
His proposed solution is to offer one grant of units every three years, allowing the performance goals to play out before a new incentive is added.
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While many shareholders urge companies to tailor compensation programs to their own unique strategies and time horizons, boards complain it is risky to deviate from the pay models favoured by the proxy advisers.
“The incredible convergence in compensation systems across companies is absolutely mind-boggling,” said Mr. Allaire.
“You read them, and it’s almost the same text from one to the other. … We’ve converged on a process which has received the blessing of proxy advisers and large investors, and boards feel safe when they apply that particular process.”