This year marks the 150th anniversary of the ascent of the most famous mountain in Europe, the Matterhorn. On Bastille Day, in 1865, four British climbers and three guides were the first climbers to reach the summit. In an article in the Financial Times (FT), entitled “In Whymper’s steps”, Edward Douglas wrote, “It was a defining moment in the history of mountaineering, arguably as pivotal as the first ascent of Everest. Before this calamity climbing was a quirky minority pastime and Zermatt an indigent and obscure village. All that changed on July 14, 1865. As locals cheerfully acknowledge, the Matterhorn disaster enthralled the public around the world and sparked an unprecedented tourist boom.”
The disaster had befallen the climbing team on its descent after having scaled the summit. The team was led by Edward Whymper. As they were coming back down, they were all tied together with rope. When one of the team slipped, he knocked over his guide and “their weight on the rope pulled off the next man…and a fourth climber as well.” Only expedition leader Whymper and two Swiss guides, a father and son duo from Zermott, survived the disaster when “they dug in and the rope tightened – then snapped – leaving them to watch in horror as the bodies of their companions cartwheeled thousands of feet down the mountain.” The depiction of the disaster by the French artist Gustave Doré captures for me the full horror of the tragedy.
Yesterday I wrote about the role of compensation in your best practices compliance program. Today I want to focus on the same issue but looking at senior management and compensation. I thought about this inter-connectedness of compensation in a compliance program, focusing up the corporate ladder when I read a recent article in the New York Times (NYT) by Gretchen Morgenson, in her Fair Game column, entitled “Ways to Put the Boss’s Skin In the Game”. Her piece dealt with a long-standing question about how to make senior executives more responsible for corporate malfeasance? Her article had some direct application to anti-corruption compliance programs such as those based on the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) or UK Bribery Act. Morgenson said the issue was “Whenever a big corporation settles an enforcement matter with prosecutors, penalties levied in the case – and they can be enormous – are usually paid by the company’s shareholders. Yet the people who actually did the deeds or oversaw the operations rarely so much as open their wallets.”
She went on to explain that it is an economic phenomenon called “perverse incentive” which is one where “corporate executives are encouraged to take outsized risks because they can earn princely amounts from their actions. At the same time, they know that they rarely have to pay any fines or face other costly consequences from their actions.” To help remedy this situation, the idea has come to the fore about senior managers putting some ‘skin in the game’. Her article discussed three different sources for this initiative.
The first is a current proxy proposal in front of Citigroup shareholders which “would require that top executives at the company contribute a substantial portion of their compensation each year to a pool of money that would be available to pay penalties if legal violations were uncovered at the bank.” Further, “To ensure that the money would be available for a long enough period – investigations into wrongdoing take years to develop – the proposal would require that the executives keep their pay in the pool for 10 years.”
The second came from William Dudley, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who made a similar suggestion in a speech last fall. His proscription involved a performance bond for the actions of bank executives. Morgenson quoted Dudley from his speech, “In the case of a large fine, the senior management and material risk takes would forfeit their performance bond. Not only would this deferred debt compensation discipline individual behavior and decision-making, but it would provide strong incentives for individuals to flag issues when problems develop.”
Morgenson reported on a third approach which was delineated in an article in the Michigan State Journal of Business and Securities Law by Greg Zipes, “a trial lawyer for the Office of the United States Trustee, the nation’s watchdog over the bankruptcy system, who also teaches at the New York University School for Professional Studies.” The article is entitled, “Ties that Bind: Codes of Conduct That Require Automatic Reductions to the Pay of Directors, Officers and Their Advisors for Failures of Corporate Governance”. Zipes proposal is to create a “contract to be signed by a company’s top executives that could be enforced after a significant corporate governance failure. Executives would agree to pay back 25 percent of their gross compensation for the three years before the beginning of improprieties. The agreement would be in effect whether or not the executives knew about the misdeeds inside their company.”
As you might guess, corporate leaders are somewhat less than thrilled at the prospect of being held accountable. Zipes was cited for the following, “Corporate executives are unlikely to sign such codes of conduct of their own volition.” Indeed Citibank went so far as to petition the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) “for permission to exclude the policy from its 2015 shareholder proxy.” But the SEC declined to do and at least Citibank shareholders will have the chance to vote on the proposal.
In the FCPA compliance context, these types of proposals seem to me to be exactly the type of response that a company or its Board of Directors should want to put in place. Moreover, they all have the benefit of a business solution to a legal problem. In an interview for her piece, Morgenson quoted Zipes as noting, “This idea doesn’t require regulation and its doesn’t require new laws. Executives can sign the binding code of conduct or not, but the idea is that the marketplace would reward those who do.” For those who might argue that senior executives can not or should not be responsible for the nefarious actions of other; they readily take credit for “positive corporate activities in which they had little role or knew nothing about.” Moreover, under Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), corporate executives must make certain certifications about financial statement and reporting so there is currently some obligations along these lines.
Finally, perhaps shareholders will simply become tired of senior executives claiming they could not know what was happening in their businesses; have their fill of hearing about some rogue employee(s) who went off the rails by engaging in bribery and corruption to obtain or retain business; and not accept that leaders should not be held responsible.