Category Equity Compensation Plans

Summertime is Check-up Time for Equity Plans

Welcome to summer. Picnics, lazy days, and gearing up for the fall cycle in compensation. While it would be natural to sit back and relax a bit, I know some folks wonder what they could be doing to help lighten their load when the proxy and compensation seasons start to heat up towards the end of the year and beginning of the next year. Well, for those that want to try to use their summers a bit more productively, might I suggest that it makes and excellent time to review your equity compensation plans? No, seriously, it does.

Your company likely made its annual equity grants towards the beginning of the year. Any new share requests are likely done. You equity plans are now in a bit of a holding pattern until the next annual cycle starts again. So taking the time this summer to review them might help you get a leg up.

So, without further ado, I offer my:

Annual Equity Plan Check-up Checklist

  • Overall Plan Limits
    • Is a shareholder-approved plan still effective? When is the expiration date of the plan?
    • What is the plan’s overall share limit? How many total shares remain available for grant under the plan? How many shares remain available for grant assuming maximum payout for previously granted performance awards?
    • Are there sufficient shares to cover the regular annual grant next year? Are there sufficient shares assuming a maximum payout?
    • Are there sufficient shares to cover Board of Director grants next year?
    • Are there sufficient shares to cover other/special grants that may be made before next year’s annual shareholders meeting?
    • Based on historical grant practices, are there sufficient shares to cover next year’s grants? Are there sufficient shares assuming a maximum payout? Are there sufficient shares if the stock price declines by 10% 20%?
      • Note 1: If there could be a shortfall under these scenarios, consideration should be given to submitting a request to shareholders to approve additional shares through either a new plan or an amendment of the existing plan at next year’s annual shareholders meeting. If the shortfall is caused by the regular annual grant before the next annual shareholders meeting, it may be necessary to make grants contingent on subsequent shareholder approval or delay the annual grant until after the annual shareholders meeting.
      • Note 2: If the plan has a split share pool (i.e., one pool for stock options/stock appreciation rights and another pool for full value awards), the above questions will need to be evaluated relative to each share pool.
  • Retirement/Termination/Severance
    • Are any named executive officers or key employees planning to retire?
    • Are any reductions in force planned for the coming year?
    • Is there a significant number of shares that will be forfeited during the year that will replenish the plan’s share pool?
    • Are any large promotional grants expected to be made in the coming year? Will it be necessary to make a large sign-on grant to a newly recruited executive during the year?
  • Share Forfeitures, Tax Withholding, and Option Exercises with Stock
    • Does the plan provide for replenishment of the share pool due to forfeitures of prior grants? Due to withholding shares to cover income tax withholding? Due to stock-for-stock, or net-settled exercise of stock options?
    • Has the appropriate number of shares been added back to the plan to cover these circumstances?
    • Note: Typically, prior-year grants will vest or be forfeited at about the same time as the annual equity grants are made (assuming your company generally makes the annual grants at about the same time each year).  Thus, there may be replenishment of the share pool from the above items at about the time the annual grant will be made.
  • Accounting
    • What is the grant date for awards made so far this year, i.e., when is the award finally approved by the Compensation Committee or full Board of Directors?
    • Does the full Board approve all awards? Only the CEO awards?
    • Has the accounting cost of each vehicle been determined?
    • Will performance shares initially be expensed at target or some other performance level?
      • Note: Share awards that are earned based on a stock price metric are generally expensed based on their Monte Carlo value, which will not be revisited during the performance/vesting period unless the awards are modified.
    • How will forfeitures be estimated at grant?
  • Vesting
    • Does the plan include minimum vesting requirements?
      • If so, do the annual equity and other grants comply with these requirements or qualify for an exception?
      • If an exception to minimum vesting requirements is used, is there sufficient room for all proposed awards that seek to use it, e.g., total plan limit for awards with a vesting period of one-year or less is limited to 5% of the plan’s share pool (say 10 million shares) or 500,000 shares-so how many of those shares are still available to be used for awards that do not meet the plan’s minimum vesting requirement?
  • Board of Director Awards
    • Does the plan establish a limit on awards to directors?
    • Are the contemplated awards to directors within such limit?
    • Will the limit be sufficient going forward (should review this in the context of a Director Pay Study)?
    • Do director awards from the Plan comply with any applicable minimum vesting requirements or an exception to such requirements?
  • SEC Filings
    • Are Form 4s required for any of the proposed grants?
    • Are Form 4s required for vesting of prior grants?
    • If so, when will the Form 4s be filed?
    • Will Form 5s required for grants made during the year?
  • Compliance Check
    • Does the plan incorporate all currently necessary features to be in compliance with all applicable rules and regulations?
    • Does the plan need to be amended to reflect any changes to the rules and regulations during the past year?
      • Section 162(m) was modified significantly by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and plans no longer are required to have certain provisions that would otherwise enable them to be used to grant awards that would qualify for the Section 162(m) performance-based exemption such as limits on the number of awards that can be granted to a single participant and the performance metrics that can be used to qualify such an award.
        • Does the plan have outstanding awards that are designed to qualify for the Section 162(m) grandfather provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017?

Remember, ultimately, you want to be able to know how your plan stacks up against the three criteria for a good equity plan:

  • Compliance
  • Best Practices
  • Flexibility

Another thing you might want to consider doing during the summer months is to check your equity usage and dilution to evaluate how your company is using equity compared to its peers.

  • Consider conducting a dilution analysis for your company and your company’s peer companies
  • Consider conducting a run rate and burn rate analysis for your company and your company’s peers


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Three Keys to a Good Equity Compensation Plan

Having worked with a number of companies and equity compensation plans over the decades, I paused the other day to reflect on what makes for a “good” plan in my experience. In thinking this through I think there are three keys which help make an equity plan “good”:

  • Compliance
  • Best Practices
  • Flexibility


Seems simple, but a good equity plan ensures that it complies with all the applicable rules. These rules include the Securities and Exchange Commission rules, the listing exchange (NYSE/NASDAQ) rules, the tax rules, and accounting rules.

Best Practices

A good plan reflects the current thinking of what constitutes “best practice” with respect to an equity plan. For example, today’s good plans typically have a minimum vesting period for awards, have some form of double-trigger protection for change-in-control, and are likely to place a limit on the number of shares that can be granted as full value awards (stock-settled awards other than stock options or stock appreciation rights).


Good equity plans also manage to balance compliance and best practices with flexibility, so that the plan itself does not unintentionally box the company into a particular action but instead enables the company to determine what is to occur, i.e., maintaining the most flexibility while still being in compliance with applicable rules and following best practices. Flexibility itself often is not fully understood until an unforeseen event occurs and the equity plan is put to the test.


I listed the keys for a good plan in order of their applicability. In order to have a viable equity plan, it has to comply with the applicable rules, i.e., compliance. To have a better equity plan, it should reflect current best practices in its provisions (vesting, CIC, award limits, share limits, etc.). Finally, to be a good plan, an equity plan needs to have sufficient flexibility to allow the company to address issues that arise, even if not expected.

In my experience, the hardest thing for an equity plan to do is to incorporate adequate flexibility and reflect current best practices. Sometimes, compliance can be a stretch, but that is a baseline which needs to be met and most plans do an adequate job of following the applicable rules. Many plans also do a relatively good job of incorporating best practices at the time they are adopted. The toughest thing is drafting an equity plan to ensure there will be sufficient flexibility.

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Warning: Section 162(m) Language and Incentive Plans

Just a quick word of warning to executive compensation professionals to take a long, hard look at both short-term incentive and long-term/equity incentive plans (and their associated proxy proposals ) that include Section 162(m) language. The reason is not so much the question of whether such Section 162(m) language is still needed (it might be if your company is putting forward a plan amendment and there are outstanding awards that may qualify for the Section 162(m) transition relief under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act), but rather what justifications are given for seeking shareholder approval of the proposed plan.

If the proxy proposal indicates that one reason for requesting shareholder approval due to qualifying compensation paid under the plan under Section 162(m), then the plaintiff’s bar is ready to file suit.  I have been working with one company that filed its proxy early in 2018 and was requesting shareholder approval for both its annual and equity plans.  The company was on a fiscal year and the changes in Section 162(m) wrought by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will not fully apply until later in calendar 2018–after the company’s annual meeting. But, the proposals did not indicate this and the plaintiff claimed that the disclosures were misleading and sought an injunction.

So, practitioners should carefully evaluate the rationale given for seeking shareholder approval of any incentive plan being proposed in a company’s proxy statement.  If Section 162(m) is mentioned, then be sure to address the changes wrought by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and explain how the changes will impact the plan and awards under the plan going forward, as well as why shareholder approval would be needed in light of the changes to Section 162(m).

Finally, if the proposal is for a completely new plan, and there is no possibility that any of the Section 162(m) transition relief will apply to awards under the proposed plan, you may be tempted to eliminate all references to Section 162(m). Of course, even though certain elements of equity plans are no longer needed by Section 162(m), ISS has already said that it will be reviewing the elements included in plan documents. So it may not make complete sense right now to eliminate things like annual (or other period) limits on awards, especially to directors, or a list of potential performance metrics, and other elements that used to be included solely for Section 162(m) compliance reasons.

As they always said in Hill Street Blues, “Let’s be careful out there.”

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ISS Posts Final FAQs and Other Policy Document for 2018

On December 14, 2017, ISS issued several important updated documents concerning its policies and methodologies for the upcoming 2018 proxy season:

These are all available on ISS’s Latest Voting Policies: 2018 webpage on its website:

This page also includes information ISS released on its European Pay-for-Performance Alignment and Methodology.

U.S. Compensation Policies: FAQs

This supersedes the preliminary FAQs on this topic issued in November 2017.  These FAQs make changes to or introduce ISS policies:

  • How ISS Assesses Board’s Actions Taken in Response to Low Support (<70%) on a Say-on-Pay (SOP) Vote
    • Same as last year’s policy except now ISS will expect companies to address in their proxy statements: (1) the breadth of the engagement with shareholders, including the frequency and timing of engagements, number of institutional investors and the company participants including whether independent directors participated as well; (2) disclosure of specific feedback received from investors; and, (3) specific and meaningful actions taken to address shareholder concerns.
  • Lay out the four measures now used in ISS’ quantitative Pay-for-Performance (P4P) screen
    • Relative Degree of Alignment (RDA) – relative measure
    • Multiple of Median (MOM) – relative measure
    • Pay-TSR Alignment (PTA) – absolute measure
    • Financial Performance Assessment (FPA) – relative measure – assesses CEO pay rank and financial performance rank over a two- or three-year period using up to four financial metrics which vary by industry
  • Explain how the new Financial Performance Assessment (FPA) measure operates
    • Compares a company’s financial and operational performance over the long-term versus ISS peer group. Note: ISS has historical taken the position that you need a performance period of at least 3 years for it to consider the program long-term performance and yet, somehow it characterizes a two-year period of financial performance as long-term. FPA uses three or four financial metrics that are selected and weighted based on industry. The financial metrics that could be used include: return on invested capital (ROIC); return on assets (ROA); return on equity (ROE); EBITDA growth; and, cash flow (from operations) growth.
  • Explain how the FPA result will impact the final quantitative P4P concern level
    • FPA may affect the overall quantitative P4P concern level only if:
      • a Medium concern under any of the three initial tests (RDA, MOM, PTA), or
      • a Low concern but bordering the Medium concern threshold under any of the three initial tests
    • FPA can modify the overall concern up to Medium or down to low in the above cases. If the concern level under any of three initial tests is a High concern or the three initial tests result in a Low concern not bordering on Medium concern, then FPA modification is not be available.
  • Explain the time period used for TSR calculations for RDA
    • ISS uses a three-year period for measuring TSR ending closest to the fiscal year-end of the subject company. The TSR of the ISS peers will be measured over that same period. However, ISS will begin to average the closing prices across all trading days contained in the beginning and months of the TSR measurement period.
  • Explain which problematic practices are most likely to result in an adverse ISS vote recommendation
    • Repricing or replacing underwater stock options/SARs without prior shareholder approval (including cash outs)
    • Extraordinary perquisites or tax gross-ups
    • New or extended executive agreements that provide for:
      • Excessive CIC payments (exceeding 3 times base salary and average/target/most recent bonus)
      • CIC severance payments without involuntary job loss or substantial diminution of duties
      • CIC payments with excise tax gross-ups
      • Multi-year guaranteed awards that are no at-risk due to rigorous performance conditions, or
      • Liberal CIC definition combined with any single-trigger CIC benefits
    • Any other provision or practice deemed to be egregious and present a significant risk to investors
  • Explain how ISS will identify “excessive” levels of non-employee director pay and the impact it will have on its analysis
    • ISS is looking for extreme “outliers” in NED pay, which historically has represented pay figures above the top 5% of all comparable directors
    • If ISS finds excessive NED pay levels to exist, it may issue adverse vote recommendation for those board members responsible for approving/setting NED pay if no compelling rationale is provided
  • Explain how ISS will consider the new CEO Pay Ratio disclosure
    • ISS will display in its research reports: (1) the median employee pay figure; and, (2) the CEO pay ratio.
    • ISS will continue to assess the CEO pay ratio data as it becomes available and seek feedback from investors on the usefulness of this information and what should be done with it


U.S. Equity Compensation Plans: FAQs

This supersedes the preliminary FAQs issued in November 2017 about ISS’ Equity Plan Scorecard (EPSC) policy. These updated FAQs

  • Explain how ISS will treat the grant of time-vested restricted shares as consideration for an acquisition for purposes of its burn rate calculation
    • Generally, ISS factors all equity grants into its burn rate calculation. However, if companies grant time-vested restricted shares as part of an acquisition, they may request that such shares be excluded from the ISS burn rate calculation, but must provide tabular disclosure to enable ISS to determine the shares used in each of the three most recent years. Only time-vested restricted stock can be excluded under this policy; performance-based awards issued in an acquisition context will continue to be included. See the FAQs for a sample of the table that must be provided. Once companies make this initial disclosure, they should continue to provide it, even if they did not issue any time-vested restricted shares for acquisitions during the most recent year covered.
  • Clarified that all previous ISS burn rate commitments are now dead and of no force and that ISS no longer gives any special treatment to such commitments
  • Lay out the definition of “liberal change in control” and its impact on a plan with contains such a term
    • Means vesting triggers linked to: shareholder approval of the transaction, rather than its consummation; and/or an unapproved change in less than a majority of the board; and/or acquisition of a low percentage of outstanding common stock (15% or less); and/or announcement or commencement of a tender or exchange offer; or any other trigger that could result in windfall compensation without the occurrence of an actual change in control of the company.
  • Explain how ISS evaluates an equity plan proposal seeking approval of one or more amendments
    • Evaluated on a case-by-case basis
    • ISS will generally base its vote recommendation on the EPSC evaluation/score if any of the following apply:
      • the proposal includes a material request for additional shares;
      • the proposal represents the first time shareholders have had an opportunity to vote on the plan;
      • the amendments include an extension of the plan’s term; or
      • the amendments include the addition of full value awards as an award type when the current plan authorizes only stock option/SAR grants
    • If none of the four scenarios above apply, then ISS’ vote recommendation will depend on the overall impact of the proposed amendments, i.e. whether deemed beneficial or contrary to shareholders’ interests
  • Explain the factors ISS considers in its qualitative review of director pay for the purpose of a proposal seeking approval of a director equity plan
    • The relative magnitude of director compensation compared to companies of a similar profile
    • The presence of problematic pay practices relating to director compensation
    • Director stock ownership guidelines and holding requirements
    • Equity award vesting schedules
    • The mix of cash and equity-based compensation
    • Meaningful limits on director compensation
    • The availability of retirement benefits or perquisites
    • The quality of disclosure surrounding director compensation
  • Lay out the changes to the EPSC policy for 2018
    • Passing score for S&P 500 companies was raised from 53 to 55 points
    • The CIC vesting factor was made binary – either full or no points are no earned depending on whether plan complies with the ISS CIC vesting requirements:
      • For performance-based awards: acceleration is limited to actual performance achieved, pro-rata of target based on the elapsed portion of the performance period, a combination of both actual & pro-rata, or the performance awards are forfeited or terminated upon a CIC, and
      • For time-based awards: acceleration cannot be automatic single-trigger or discretionary
    • The holding requirement factor was made binary – either full or no points are earned depending on whether all awards require a holding period of at least 12-months. No points are given if the holding period is less or the holding requirement applies until stock ownership guidelines are met.
    • The CEO vesting requirement factors were made binary – either full points or no points depending on whether the vesting period is at least 3 years from the date of grant
    • The broad discretion to accelerate vesting factor was updated so that full points are earned only if discretion is limited to cases of death and disability. Discretion to accelerate vesting upon a CIC will cause no points to be awarded under this factor unlike current policy which would give full  points. The ability to use discretion to accelerate vesting in any other situation would cause the plan to lose all points under this factor.
    • ISS adjusted certain factor scores, per ISS’ proprietary scoring model.
  • Explain how the EPSC models differ now
    • Generally the same as current policy, except that the maximum points for S&P 500 and Russell 3000 companies under the Plan Features and Grant Practices pillars have been revised to be: 19 and 36 points, respectively.
  • Explain the EPSC points required to receive a positive ISS vote recommendation
    • S&P 500 companies now must score 55 or more points under the EPSC model to receive a positive ISS vote recommendation for their equity plan proposals
    • All other companies must still score 53 or more points under the EPSC model to receive a positive ISS vote recommendation for their equity plan proposals
  • Explain the ESPC factors, whether they are binary and if weighted equally
    • See chart in the FAQs on this. But note that ISS does not give out the actual points attributed to each factor
  • Lay out when repricing provisions will constitute and overriding factor that would cause ISS to recommend against a plan proposal regardless of EPSC model score and other analysis
    • If the plan would permit repricing of stock options/SARs without shareholder approval it would constitute an overriding factor.
  • Explain how ISS evaluates whether a plan meets the minimum vesting requirement
    • The plan must mandate a vesting period of at least one year for all equity award types grantable under the plan, which applies to no less than 95% of the shares authorized for grant. Exceptions to the minimum vesting beyond 5% will prevent a company from getting points under this factor. Also if the plan permits individual award agreements or other mechanisms to reduce or eliminate the minimum vesting requirement, the plan receives no points under this factor.
  • Explain how ISS determines the treatment of performance-based awards that may vest upon a change in control
    • ISS will consider whether the amount of the performance award that would be payable/vested upon a CIC is (a) at target level, (b) above target level, (c) prorated based on actual performance as of the CIC date and/or the time elapsed in the performance period as of the CIC date, or (d) based on board discretion. Of the plan is silent, it will be treated as discretionary.
  • Explain how ISS determines the vesting period for a CEO’s most recent equity grants
    • For time-vested awards, full vesting should not occur until three years from the date of grant
    • For performance-based awards, ISS will give credit for a vesting period of slightly less than three years from the grant date so long as the performance measurement period is three years, if the reason is due to the grant date being within the performance measurement period. For performance-based awards that are subject to subsequent time-based vesting, only the performance-contingent portion of the vesting period is counted.
  • Explain how ISS will evaluate an equity plan amendment proposal when the company does not disclose the updated plan document
    • ISS may recommend against the plan amendment proposal because the company has not provided sufficient information to enable shareholders to fully evaluate the revised plan
  • Lay out the new 2018 Burn Rate Benchmarks
    • See the Appendix to this FAQ


Pay-for-Performance Mechanics (U.S.)

Those that were hoping that ISS would go into more sufficient detail so that they might be able to determine how they will fare under ISS’ quantitative P4P assessment are likely to be a bit disappointed.  While ISS does give some direction on how it will the P4P quantitative test will work, it stops short of giving sufficient details for a company to calculate these on its own. So much for transparency. But, I guess too much transparency is bad for the bottom line and if companies could calculate how they would fare under the ISS quantitative P4P tests they might need to purchase P4P simulation modeling from ISS Corporate Solutions (ISS corporate services arm).

However, this document does lay out a change in the concern thresholds under the Multiple of Median (MOM) test for S&P 500 companies. For S&P companies, the level that triggers a medium concern level has decreased from 2.33x to 2.00x. For non-S&P 500 companies, the medium concern threshold under the MOM test remain at 2.33x.

While this document does lay out the metrics that will be used for FPA for each GICS group, it does not specify the weighting of those metrics.



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