The Evolution of Executive Pay Policy at General Motors, 1918–2008
16 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2017
Date Written: Winter 2017
This article documents the gradual movement of General Motors away from the partnership concept that dominated U.S. corporate pay policy in the first half of the 20th century and toward the “competitive pay” concepts that have prevailed since then. The partnership concept was achieved by paying managers bonuses in the form of GM shares, with the amounts paid out of a single company‐wide bonus pool and based on a fixed share of profit (after subtracting a charge for the cost of capital). Thanks to this “EVA‐like” bonus scheme, GM’s managers effectively became “partners” with the company’s shareholders, sharing the wealth in good times but also the pain in troubled times. What's more, the authors also show that, from the establishment of the program in 1918 through the 1950s, the directors went to great lengths—including several bouts of innovative (and often complex) problem‐solving—to achieve their compensation objectives while maintaining such fixed‐share bonuses. But the sharing philosophy and associated compensation practices were gradually supplanted by competitive pay practices from the 1960s onward. The authors show that by the late 1970s, GM had a board of directors with modest shareholdings, in contrast to the board in the early post‐war period, whose directors had large stakes. As a consequence, directors began acting less like stewards of capital and more like employees whose financial rewards came not from returns on GM’s stock but from the fees they received for their services. This fundamental change in board compensation almost certainly contributed to the gradual abandonment of fixed‐profit sharing for GM’s managers. In its place, the board implemented competitive pay policies that, while coming to dominate executive pay policy in the U.S. and abroad, have largely divorced executive pay from changes in shareholder wealth. In the case of GM, this growing separation of pay from performance was accompanied by a significant decline in corporate returns on operating capital as well as stock returns over time.
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