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SEC Release Provides Detail on Proposed Compensation Disclosure Amendments; Podcasts Available!

(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.)

July 13, 2009

Proposed Compensation Disclosure Amendments Affect Risk Disclosures and Summary Compensation Disclosure Table Values

Last Friday, the SEC issued its release that details the proposed amendments to the compensation disclosure requirements for public companies, which the SEC approved on July 1. If adopted, the changes would generally be effective for the 2010 proxy season. Two of the most important proposed changes:

CD&A. The SEC proposes to add a new instruction to the requirements for the Compensation Discussion and Analysis section of the proxy statement. A company would be required to disclose how its overall compensation policies for employees create incentives that can affect the company's risk level, and its management of risk. The disclosure is required if the compensation policies (including compensation of non-executives) create risks that may have a "material adverse effect" on the company. The new CD&A instruction includes a laundry list of situations that might require disclosure, such as the payment of bonuses based on short-term goals, in situations where the risk to the company extends over a longer period of time.

    Comment: The examples in the instruction seem like they are lifted right out of the pre-meltdown playbooks of Lehman Brothers and other financial institutions - the bonus practices of these institutions clearly encouraged risky practices that brought down some of the institutions and nearly brought down the world economy. In other industries, it's hard to imagine that companies will come to the conclusion that their compensation practices create "material risks" for the company.

    Assuming the SEC adopts the new instruction, I would guess that very few companies other than financial institutions will disclose anything but a generic sentence stating that the company has done the risk assessment and found nothing material. For the financial institutions that have accepted TARP funds, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the related Interim Treasury Regulations already require specific risk assessment in their compensation practices. For other companies, does the SEC really need to add two pages of instructions to CD&A, for such a limited result for most companies? My guess is that the Commission was responding to public pressure to do something about the risky behavior that led to the current economic mess.

Summary Compensation Table (SCT). The SEC proposes to change the calculation method for stock awards and option awards in the SCT to require disclosure of the grant date fair value of the aggregate awards to each individual. Currently, the SCT requires disclosure of the dollar amount recognized for financial statement reporting purposes for the individual for the relevant year under FAS 123R. This change will affect the total compensation line for each individual and may have a major impact on total compensation in some years and could change the individuals to be included in the SCT for the year.

    Comment: This change reverses the last-minute change the SEC made in the SCT disclosures in December 2006, without public comment and just as the compensation disclosure rules were going into effect. The 2006 SEC release that implemented the "December surprise" stated the SEC's belief that "this disclosure ultimately will be easier for companies to prepare and investors to understand." In fact, the effect was just the opposite - the current amounts are difficult to calculate and confusing to investors, as each year's dollar amount includes a variety of equity awards that have been granted in different years and are amortized over time. As famously reported by Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times, the current calculation method can actually lead to negative compensation numbers for some executives in some years. The new method, if it is adopted, will be more predictable and will relate more closely to the equity grants made in the year in question.

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