Executive pay reforms have come too late

Mar 03 2008 by Nic Paton Print This Article

It almost doesn't matter whether corporate America is getting its house in order over executive pay, the damage to the country's reputation and probity from successive "fat cat" scandals has already been done.

Corporate directors and institutional investors disagree over whether greater transparency and checks and balances on U.S. executive pay mean the system is now changing for the better.

But both are in equally gloomy agreement that the current model has hurt corporate America's image – badly.

Research by consultancy Watson Wyatt Worldwide has found that nearly two-thirds of directors think the executive pay system is improving, against slightly more than a third of institutional investors.

There was also a sharp difference of opinion as to whether the executive pay model has helped to improve company performance.

While two out of three of the 163 directors questioned believed it had, slightly fewer than four out of 10 of the 72 institutional investors and pension fund managers polled felt the same way.

But what both agreed on – three quarters of each in fact – was that the current executive pay model had hurt corporate America's image.

A majority of both groups believed the system had led to resentment among rank and file workers and had resulted in excessive executive pay levels.

"While directors and institutional shareholders agree on key executive pay issues, they don't see eye-to-eye on other areas," said Ira Kay, global director of compensation consulting at Watson Wyatt.

"While directors believe the system generally works, institutional investors generally feel the model's flaws run deeper and require more substantial changes. Clearly, more work needs to be done," she added.

Both directors and institutional investors believed the Securities and Exchange Commission's new disclosure requirements on executive pay had been helpful, although improvements were still needed.

Among the research's other findings, it was also clear how hard it was to find and retain talent at this level.

Just six per cent of directors and 14 per cent of institutional investors did not believe firms should typically find top executive talent from inside the organisation.

More than half – 56 per cent – of directors and 45 per cent of institutional investors preferred to promote from within.

While nearly half of institutional investors believed that executive pay opportunity could be significantly reduced without losing key talent, only a quarter of directors agreed.

Both directors (94 per cent) and institutional investors (85 per cent) strongly agreed that severance and change-in-control agreements should be set at or below market.