“Virtue has never been as respectable as money.” Mark Twain
One of the more favored sayings of fund managers is that they like to invest with managements with “skin in the game.” This is another instance where the early Buffett (as opposed to the later Buffett) had it right. Managements can and should own stock in their firms. But they should purchase it with their own money. That, like the prospect of hanging as Dr. Johnson said, would truly clarify the mind. In hind sight a major error in judgment was made by investment professionals who bought into the argument that awarding stock options would beneficially serve to align the interests of managements and shareholders. Never mind that the corporate officers should have already understood their fiduciary obligations. What resulted, not in all instances but often enough in the largest capitalization companies, was a class of condottieri such as one saw in Renaissance Italy, heading armies that spent their days marching around avoiding each other, all the while being lavishly paid for the risks they were NOT facing. This sub-set of managers became a new entitled class that achieved great personal wealth, often just by being present and fitting in to the culture. Rather than thinking about truly long-term strategic implications and questions raised in running a business, they acted with a short-duration focus, and an ever-present image of the current share price in the background. Creating sustainable long-term business value rarely entered into the equation, often because they had never seen it practiced.
I understood how much of a Frankenstein’s monster had been created when executive compensation proposals ended up often being the greater part of a proxy filing. A particularly bothersome practice was “reloading” options annually. Over time, with much dilution, these programs transferred significant share ownership to management. You knew you were on to something when these compensation proposals started attracting negative vote recommendations. The calls would initially start with the investor relations person inquiring about the proxy voting process. Once it was obvious that best practices governance indicated a “no” vote, the CFO would call and ask for reconsideration.
How do you determine whether a CEO or CFO actually walks the walk of good capital allocation, which is really what this is all about? One tip-off usually comes from discussions about business strategy and what the company will look like in five to ten years. You will have covered metrics and standards for acquisitions, dividends, debt, share repurchase, and other corporate action. Following that, if the CEO or CFO says, “Why do you think our share price is so low?” I would know I was in the wrong place. My usual response was, “Why do you care if you know what the business value of the company is per share? You wouldn’t sell the company for that price. You aren’t going to liquidate the business. If you did, you know it is worth substantially more than the current share price.” Another “tell” is when you see management taking actions that don’t make sense if building long-term value is the goal. Other hints also raise questions – a CFO leaves “because he wants to enjoy more time with his family.” Selling a position contemporaneously with the departure of a CFO that you respected would usually leave your investors better off than doing nothing. And if you see the CEO or CFO selling stock – “our investment bankers have suggested that I need to diversify my portfolio, since all my wealth is tied up in the company.” That usually should raise red flags that indicate something is going on not obvious to the non-insider.
Are things improving? Options have gone out of favor as a compensation vehicle for executives, increasingly replaced by the use of restricted stock. More investors are aware of the potential conflicts that options awards can create and have a greater appreciation of governance. That said, one simple law or regulation would eliminate many of the potential abuses caused by stock options. “All stock acquired by reason of stock option awards to senior corporate officers as part of their compensation MAY NOT BE SOLD OR OTHERWISE DISPOSED OF UNTIL AFTER THE EXPIRATION OF A PERIOD OF THREE YEARS FROM THE INDIVIDUAL’S LAST DATE OF SERVICE.” Then you might actually see the investors having a better chance of getting their own yachts.
Edward A. Studzinski