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Winner takes all: what role did remuneration packages play in the global crisis?

Risk and reward ­ – such lovely alliteration makes this pairing feel so
logical. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past year, it’s that
markets, economies, companies, investors and individuals rarely work in ways the
average Vulcan would approve of. Much less so in a bull run such as the one that
is currently crashing around our ears.

That could go some way towards explaining the hideously inflated remuneration
packages director-level executives have been enjoying, while gold-plated
capitalism has been filling in for an absent common sense. And the latter’s
return from the dead amid what many believe is a global recession ­ – created on
the back of a philosophy of taking on huge risks and not bothering to mitigate
them properly ­ – explains why time is now being called on those inflated pay
packets that, in not reflecting risks undertaken, exacerbated the disastrous
consequences of those risks that we’re seeing now.

US regulators have not done much more than pay lip service to changing bad
remuneration practices, focusing on financial institutions now governed by the
rules of its banking bailout, involving a cap on pay and retainers for top brass
while in public ownership. But in the UK last October, the
Financial
Services Authority
published its ‘Dear CEO’ letter that it had sent
to a reported 28 banks and building societies in the UK on the matter. Chief
executive Hector Sants noted in the letter the “widespread concern that
inappropriate remuneration schemes, particularly, but not exclusively in the
areas of investment banking and trading, may have contributed to the present
market crisis.

The FSA shares these concerns.” The note identified various commonplace
remuneration policies, from including calculating payments on the basis of
revenues without counterbalancing risk controls, not deferring parts of the
bonus and creating a conflict of interest by permitting front office to
influence back office as undermining systems designed to control various risks.
It added that these practices showed no evidence of having been aligned with a
company’s stated risk appetite.

Employment lawyers are advising their clients to show they are moving to
change bad practices ­ even if the timing of the note, when most companies are
reaching the end of their bonus year and have already set in place the following
year’s remuneration contracts ­ puts dates for any material improvements back to
2010 and beyond.

Apprehensive markets
Alistair Woodland, partner with Clifford Chance’s employment group, notes
apprehension from the market. “Bonus structures and compensation levels are
market driven and employers are unwilling to be the first to introduce some of
the more radical changes that have been suggested, such as moving to a
‘multi-year’ bonus scheme, or allowing the employer to claw back bonuses from
previous years. No one wants to be seen to break rank and to be the first to
change because it will affect their ability to attract and retain staff.”

The ‘Dear CEO’ letter came a week after the agency fined
Alliance
& Leicester
£7m for practices in selling its payment protection
insurance that it said breached FSA business principles. It found the way A
&L’s bonus structure in 2006 and 2007 incentivised its sales advisers and
team managers to sell PPIs, and the fact that bonus schemes made express
provision that individuals would forfeit 25% of their bonus if they did not hit
sales targets, “increased the risk that advisers might make unsuitable sales of
PPI to achieve those bonuses” and “translated in practice into a situation where
customers were not treated fairly by A&L when being sold PPI.”

One example of a European financial services firm taking a proactive approach
is
UBS,
which in November announced a new compensation model taking greater account of
long-term value creation and sustainability.

Up to one-third of the annual variable cash component of compensation will be
paid at year-end subject to “positive business development”, while the larger
portion will be held in an escrow account. The overall amount will be reduced
“if regulations are grossly violated, if unnecessary high risks are undertaken
or if individual performance targets are not met”. UBS’s variable equity
program will only vest shares after three years and will oblige top managers to
hold onto these for longer.

“Some disproportionately large risks had been assumed… earnings, and the
bonuses linked to them, had not been sufficiently tied to the amount of assumed
risk,” the bank said. It added that “bonuses had been calculated on short-term
results and without sufficient appraisal of the quality of sustainability of
those earnings.”

The days of bonus policies reflecting only the need to attract and retain
staff ­ not also the inherent risks that these policies can indirectly pose to
regulatory compliance, keeping an eye on shareholder values and best practice ­
may be numbered. A survey of executive pay among European financial services
companies published in January 2007 by
Mercer
found that more than 70% of compensation paid to the chief executives in the
financial services sector was paid through bonuses and that an average 25% of
total direct compensation paid to bank CEOs was paid to them as a base salary:
so more of their total pay is performance-based. Moreover, restricted stock and
performance share plans are identified as the most popular long-term incentives
­ with the most common performance measure being total shareholder return
relative to peer group.

Raising risk
Ironically, as the demand for risk manager types such as heads of treasury has
increased in the past three years, remuneration for these roles has shot up,
raising the inherent risk in the remuneration package itself. Mercer says
treasury managers saw an average 12% rise in their salary in 2006, while chief
risk officers received an average 14% increase in their salary ­ both
“above-average” rises, says Mercer.

“The FSA is expecting firms to use remuneration policies to create an
incentive for employees to act in accordance with FSA rules and principles and
with good risk management procedures, rather than incentives to maximise profits
alone,” Andrew Hart, a principal at
Freshfields
Bruckhaus Deringer
, says of the FSA guidance.

Clifford Chance’s Woodford agrees that introducing HR to your risk managers,
your compliance and regulatory people is a cornerstone of the philosophical
shift companies are being asked to make. “Make sure you can show you’ve started
off dialogue between those setting the benefits policies at your company and the
regulatory and compliance department, to get regulatory oversight of those
policies,” he says, “to recognise the link between benefit structures and legal
requirements to manage risk”.

He recommends a carve-out of non-key positions from the new policies to
control the cost in changing the system: in cases where bonus contracts are
binding into 2009 and beyond, companies may have to settle them and start a
fresh one, so costs may be unavoidable.

Starting work in earnest now will be crucial to ensuring the FSA looks kindly
on financial services businesses. Freshfields’ principal Margaret Cole warns
that the agency is looking to create ‘credible deterrents’ to these practices
and warns that companies could be made an example of if they do not take the
guidance seriously, suffering “meaningful consequences if they fail to raise
their game and improve standards of behaviour”.

See Financial Director’s analysis of the
FSA’s
‘Dear CEO’
note and
UBS’s
new compensation model

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