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More Risky Business; Blogging Lawyers Gone Wild!

(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.)

October 8, 2009

More Risky Business - A Case Study in the Risk Aspects of Compensation

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times on Thursday about Merrill Lynch's 2006 bonus program, which resulted in large payouts to top management even as the company was sold to Bank of America in a distressed sale. The author of the article provides more in-depth analysis in a post in the Times' DealBook Blog. Of course, these pieces probably attracted my attention because the DealBook post starts with "Calling all compensation nerds".

The Times article lays out the ways in which the Merrill plan was supposed to align top management pay with long-term performance, but concludes that the plan "did not keep workers from taking risks that nearly sank the brokerage giant. And some of its senior executives still stand to collect millions of dollars in stock under the plan." The Blog post discusses the features of the plan that put a portion of the employees' bonuses at risk, provided for a partial clawback if return on equity was not adequate, and invested the bonus amounts in stock that was locked up for a year past the three-year term of the plan.

While the article itself focuses attention on the failings of the Merrill plan, the Blog post provides a more nuanced view of the effort put into structuring the program, and the reasons it may not have been fully effective:

The Bottom Line: Talk to people who were in the plan, and they will tell you it worked because Merrill executives lost money in the clawback in 2007 and also because of the sunken stock price. However, the executives all did better than regular investors who put in money at the same three points but did not have the firm's leverage to help. Of course, the executives work at the company, and the plan was meant to compensate them in part for that work.

Why did the plan fail to save Merrill? Some compensation experts suggested it should have been applied to far more people. Others said a single year's return on equity might not be the right metric. And others said risk management and capital rules also contributed to Merrill's problems.

I think the Merrill plan had many worthy features that should command the attention of compensation professionals, especially in the financial services industry where risk management will become the Holy Grail of compensation programs. The Blog analysis above points out that some adjustments in the Merrill program could have made it much more effective - for example, the plan should have applied to far more people. In the financial services industry, bonuses to employees at all levels fueled excessively risky practices. But just because the program didn't perfectly match investor losses with executive losses, that doesn't mean the Merrill program wasn't a worthy effort.

In-House Lawyer Bloggers - What's Next?

Here's a new one - The Corporate Counsel Blog reports that in-house corporate attorneys have joined the blogging world. For example, Doug Chia, Senior Counsel at Johnson & Johnson, is posting on J&J's corporate blog. Chia reports that he is encouraging other in-house attorneys to blog. One of his goals is to get relevant information to retail shareholders, in preparation for the next proxy season when brokers will not be able to vote without instructions from these shareholders.

What's next? I haven't seen any GC's tweeting - yet.


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