The following post was sent to the WSJ as a reply to Robert C. Pozen’s Op Ed (WSJ 11/14/2016) ostensibly as praise for the recent Nobel prize awarded Professor Bengt Holmstrom. As the Journal didn’t reply (surprise), we post it here to our smaller but more well informed audience!
Paying a CEO (or for that matter, any senior corporate official) using an indexed stock option only goes part of the way to properly reward management for its efforts. It fails, however, to adjust for the risk that managers take but do not disclose to achieve the results which their efforts sometimes achieve. In nearly every case of corporate misgovernance over the past several decades, shareholders and sometimes Boards, learn that huge risks were taken along the way only after a corporate disaster. Options, indexed or not, offer leverage to risk taking managers with no downside penalties for bets that turn out badly for the shareholders. Indexed options don’t solve that problem and such misaligned incentives are indeed a significant cause of corporate misgovernance.
It is not wrong for corporations to take risks. They should and do so every day as a matter of normal corporate strategy. What does matter, however, is that equity holders be well informed about the kind of risks to which their investment is exposed even before they purchase their shares and the sometimes disguised incentives for risk taking given to management. Shareholders depend not only upon what managers tell them in quarterly and annual reports, but also upon competent and well informed Boards to monitor what managers do on a day to day basis. Our current system of corporate governance doesn’t accomplish that as we have clearly outlined in our book, Disorganized Crimes and which captures many of these issues from the 1990’s Boom through the financial disasters of 2007/2008.
It is highly unusual for Boards not to reward significant performance and frequently Boards do judge the particular company against its peers in distributing such rewards. But, Boards are often unaware or understand the risks that their managers have taken. They hear good news quickly and easily. Bad news arrives slowly, often only after financial disaster strikes the shareholder. Indexing stock options doesn’t disclose those risks when the company’s share price is rising. Equity options are still a one-way bet with no downside for managerial misbehavior or incompetence. Granting stock, rather than an option, however, would at least put managers in the same position as their less than well informed shareholders. Granting the stock itself would make managers far more aware that they are gambling their own money as well as that of their shareholders when they take the company into a high risk situation. Heads I win, tails you lose is not a good compensation metric, even when the option is indexed against the performance of the industry. It’s about time to deal with the real problem, not the taxation aspects of different compensation forms.
If income tax rates on currently earned income versus capital gains income get equalized, something implicit in the incoming Administration tax proposals, the real issues of managerial compensation would appear more distinctly. Compensation based upon transparent risk reporting and corporate accountability is what shareholders really need. It’s time to focus on the real problem to be solved, not the tax system that distorts the common reality of undisclosed managerial risk taking and the no lose equity option that promotes that behavior.