Returning Fairness to Executive Compensation
20 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2008 Last revised: 21 Aug 2009
Date Written: November 24, 2008
The current waive of turmoil in the financial markets has cast attention on the problem of executive compensation. Companies that have failed or disappeared in shot-gun mergers have nonetheless paid exorbitant sums to officers who arguably played a substantial role in their demise. In response, Congress for the first time established federal standards for determining compensation, including clawbacks and limits on golden parachutes.
The congressional efforts, although mild, represent a deep frustration with the system used by the Delaware courts in assessing executive compensation. With the CEO on the board, executive compensation has traditionally been examined under the duty of loyalty. Through legal legerdemain, the Delaware courts have accorded the decisions the all but insurmountable protection of the business judgment rule, requiring only that the board contain a majority of "independent directors." By largely reducing the test to a rote head count, the courts did little to ensure that compensation decisions were unaffected by the interested influence. At the same time, the courts did little to ensure that independent directors were in fact independent.
The paper provides some suggested reforms. The efficacy of the process must be improved. Most importantly, however, fairness needs to be returned to the analysis. Only with some obligation to show the fairness of the compensation decision with the interests of shareholder be adequately protected.
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