(The following post originally appeared on ONSecurities, a top Minnesota legal blog founded by Martin Rosenbaum to address securities, governance and compensation issues facing public companies.)
Section 951 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires that any public company, at its first shareholders meeting on or after January 21, 2011, hold a separate vote “to determine whether Say-on-Pay votes will occur every 1, 2 or 3 years”. This vote has been called the frequency vote or “Say When on Pay.” The Say When on Pay vote must be held no less frequently than once every six years. In a previous post, I described some mechanical issues with offering all three choices of frequency (i.e., an annual, biennial or triennial Say-on-Pay vote).
But what frequency should companies recommend for Say-on-Pay votes – annual, biennial or triennial? Most public company officials will quickly react that they prefer a triennial vote. The advantages are obvious – Say-on-Pay votes create some additional drafting, solicitation and shareholder relations issues, and a triennial vote allows the company to avoid these issues in two out of every three years.
Are there any advantages to annual or biennial votes? In a webcast (subscription only) sponsored by CompensationStandards.com, compensation consultants Mark Borges of Compensia and Mike Kesner of Deloitte brought up a few factors that should at least be considered before settling on a triennial vote recommendation:
- Some companies are coming to the conclusion that an annual vote is preferable, on the theory that an annual non-binding vote will seem routine after the first year – somewhat like the annual vote to approve the company’s auditors.
- Also, biennial or triennial votes may present a disadvantage because there will be “off years” with no vote. If ISS or other shareholder advisory services want to send a signal to the board about compensation in an off year, their only choice is to recommend a withhold vote against compensation committee members.
- It’s not clear whether the shareholder advisory services such as ISS will recommend annual votes or some other cycle. Companies should also be mindful of any stated preferences of their large shareholders.
On the last point, companies should not assume that institutional investors will all prefer an annual vote. In a post on Altman Group’s Governance and Proxy Review, “Open Questions on Dodd-Frank: Say-on-Pay Implementation (SOP) and Proxy Access,” Francis H. Byrd reports that many institutional investors have feared the prospect of being flooded by annual advisory votes for all of their portfolio companies. Such investors may be happy to vote for biennial or triennial advisory votes. Byrd also points out a common justification by companies for triennial votes – that many companies’ pay plans are crafted around three-year periods, and triennial votes allow investors to better judge the value of these plans.
In any event, the Say When on Pay vote presents a variety of strategic considerations, and public companies should start thinking about these considerations now.