ISS Guidance on COVID-19 Compensation Issues

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ISS first provided guidance regarding compensation issues related to COVID-19 back in April 2020 (Annual General Meetings & COVID-19: A Review of the Regulatory Landscape, April 1, 2020; and Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic, April 8, 2020). Since then ISS representatives have spoken on webinars about COVID-19 and compensation, and likely fielded many questions about how ISS will apply its policies and view actions taken with respect to compensation. Just last week ISS released an early set of FAQs to address the issues it sees regarding compensation actions taken regarding COVID-19 (U.S. Compensation and the COVID-19 Pandemic, Frequently Asked Questions, October 15, 2020).

Key issues and ISS positions from the FAQS:

  • Base salary reductions—temporary salary reductions will be given mitigating weight if they decrease total pay. Given more weight if targeted incentive payout opportunities are decreased to reflect the reduced salary.
  • Change to bonus/annual incentive awards—suspending program and making one-time discretionary payments may be viewed as reasonable so long as the justifications and rationale are clearly disclosed, and the resulting outcomes appear reasonable.
  • Disclosure needed if make COVID-related changes to bonus/annual incentive awards—the key disclosure items that would help investors evaluate the actions taken are:
    • specific challenges and how they rendered the original program design obsolete or the original performance targets impossible to achieve; should address how the changes are not reflective of poor management performance.
    • For mid-year changes—explain why that approach was taken and how the changes further investors’ interests.
    • One-time discretionary awards should carry performance-based considerations, with underlying criteria being disclosed.
    • How resulting payouts appropriately reflect both executive and company annual performance. Should clarify or estimate how the payouts would compare with what would have been paid under the original program design.
    • If have designed the subsequent year’s (ex. 2021) annual incentive program, encouraged to disclose information about positive changes made to the prior year design.
  • Lowered financial or operational targets below prior year’s actual levels achieved—If reflect external factors, maybe a reasonable explanation. Should be accompanied by disclosure as to how the board considered corresponding payout opportunities, especially if such payout opportunities are not commensurately reduced.
  • Changes to outstanding performance-based equity/long-term incentive awards—Such awards should be designed to smooth performance over a long-term period. Changes to in-process performance cycle awards will be viewed negatively, especially for companies that exhibit a quantitative pay-for-performance (P4P) misalignment under the ISS quantitative P4P tests.
  • Changes to outstanding equity/long-term incentive awards granted in 2020—Investors do not want to see drastic changes to awards unless the underlying business strategy has fundamentally changed. However, more modest changes to the incentive program could be viewed as reasonable. Should clearly explain any changes.
  • COVID-related retention or other one-time awards—If grant these types of awards, should clearly disclose the rationale for the award, including the magnitude and structure, and describe how the awards further investors’ interests. Vesting term should be long-term and vesting conditions should be strongly performance-based and clearly linked to the underlying concerns the awards aim to address. Such awards should also contain shareholder-friendly guardrails to avoid windfalls.
  • COVID-related retention or other one-time awards with forfeited awards—Investors do not expect such awards to be granted merely as a replacement for forfeited performance-based awards. If a one-time award is granted in the year or following year in which incentive awards are forfeited, companies must explain the specific issues driving the decision to grant the awards and how awards further investors’ interests. If a company indicates that the one-time awards were granted in consideration of forfeited performance awards, it must explain how such awards do not merely insulate executives from lower pay.
  • ISS’s board/committee responsiveness policy (when say-on-pay vote receives less than 70% support) in light of COVID-19—The ISS responsiveness policy generally requires companies in their next proxy to: (1) disclose the board’s engagement efforts, (2) disclose specific feedback from shareholders, and (3) disclose any actions or changes made to pay programs and practices to address shareholders’ concerns. In light of COVID-19, if a company is unable to implement changes, the proxy should disclose specifically how the pandemic has impeded the company’s ability to address shareholders’ concerns. If changes are delayed or do not fully address shareholders’ concerns, should disclose a longer-term plan on how the company intends to address shareholders’ concerns.
  • ISS policies unchanged by COVID-19—No changes to ISS’s equity plan scorecard (EPSC), problematic pay practices, or option repricing policies in light of the pandemic.
    However, ISS increased the passing scores (thresholds) under the EPSC model to 57 points for S&P 500 companies (was 55 points) and 55 points for Russell 3000 companies (was 53 points) and kept the score at 53 points for all other companies.

    Note: If your company is going out to shareholders to request approval of a new or amended plan in 2021, the above changes to the EPSC model likely mean that only a reduced number of shares will pass compared to 2020, everything else remaining the same. Increasing the thresholds for the S&P 500 and Russell 3000 will make it more likely that companies can request fewer shares and, thus, most likely will need to go back to shareholders sooner than they otherwise would after 2021 to request more shares.

So, if your company is even considering making changes to outstanding awards or making special one-time grants, you should also develop the proxy disclosure explaining the change(s) or one-time awards concurrently so that it is ready for your next proxy. Preparing draft proxy disclosure may also enable you to refine any changes or one-time awards to help anticipate how ISS may react.

ISS Issues Guidance Regarding the Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic

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On April 8, 2020, ISS released Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic, which offers guidance on how this crisis may impact and interact with ISS’ existing policies. ISS intends that this guidance be read in conjunction with ISS’ market and region-specific ISS Benchmark and Specialty Voting Guidelines and related FAQs.

Overall, the guidance offered falls into four categories:

  • Annual General Meeting Issues
  • Poison Pills, Shareholder Rights and Boards/Directors
  • Compensation Issues, and
  • Capital Structure and Payouts

Annual General Meetings Issues
The guidance addresses meeting postponements and virtual-only meetings.

Poison Pills, Shareholder Rights and Boards/Directors
The guidance addresses the use of poison pills and other defensive measures (ISS indicates that a stock price drop brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic generally would be sufficient justification to adopt a pill of less than one year in duration.

As for director attendance, ISS indicates that in countries where telephonic/electronic attendance is not counted, companies should provide adequate disclosure indicating if directors attended telephonically/electronically .

Compensation Issues
With respect to changing metrics or shifting goals or targets, noting that many companies may not be obligated to provide disclosure of such events until the 2021 proxy is filed, ISS encouraged boards to provide contemporaneous disclosure to shareholders of their rationales for making such changes. With respect to long-term compensation plans, ISS noted that its general policies generally are not supportive of changes to midstream or in-flight awards since they cover multi-year periods. ISS also indicated that if companies make structural changes to their long-term plans to take account of the new economic environment, it will assess such changes under its existing policies.

ISS also reminds companies of its policies with respect to option repricing, which it found still to be appropriate during the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. Basically, ISS is looking for any option exchange to comply with the following four requirements:

  1. The design is shareholder value neutral, i.e., a value-for-value exchange
  2. Surrendered options are not added back to the share pool
  3. Replacement awards do not immediately vest
  4. Executive officers and directors are excluded.

Capital Structure and Payouts
ISS states that where its market-specific policies look for dividend payout ratios to be within a certain range, it will support Board discretion this year that seek to set payout ratios that may fall below historic levels or customary market practice. In considering such proposal, ISS will look at whether a company discloses plans to use any preserved cash from dividend reductions to support and protect its business and workforce.

With respect to share repurchases, ISS simply states that, in effect, it will review what companies do with respect to any share repurchase authority when the 20201 annual meetings come up in deciding whether directors managed risks in a responsible fashion with respect to such authority.

ISS generally evaluates capital raising proposals on a case-by-case basis.

ISS Issues Updated FAQs and Methodology Documents

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ISS has released updated versions of its FAQs and methodology documents for the 2020 proxy season.

Equity Compensation Plans Frequently Asked Questions

This updated set of FAQs was issued December 6, 2019 and is available at:
https://www.issgovernance.com/file/policy/latest/americas/US-Equity-Compensation-Plans-FAQ.pdf

Notable changes include:

  • ISS will include limited partnership units in Common Shares Outstanding for Shareholder Value Transfer (SVT) and burn rate calculations if they are equivalent to common stock on a 1:1 basis and can be exchanged into common stock at any time at no cost to the holder.
  • How ISS will evaluate an equity plan proposal seeking approval of one or more plan amendments—usually by using its Equity Plan Scorecard (EPSC) model.
  • Confirming that evergreen features are now an overriding factor that will cause ISS to recommend against an equity plan proposal.
  • Confirming that ISS changed some EPSC factor scores in the EPSC model, but kept the weights of the three pillars (plan cost, plan features, and grant practices) the same.
  • Included the 2020 Burn Rate Benchmarks for the S&P 500, Russell 3000 (non-S&P 500) and Non-Russell 3000 groups in the Appendix.

Compensation Policies Frequently Asked Questions

ISS released this updated set of FAQs on December 6, 2019, available at:
https://www.issgovernance.com/file/policy/latest/americas/US-Compensation-Policies-FAQ.pdf

Notable changes include:

  • Confirming that the Financial Performance Assessment (FPA) will rely on four ISS-defined EVA metrics (EVA Margin, EVA Spread, EVA Momentum vs. Sales, and EVA Momentum vs. Capital), but confirming that the GAAP metrics which previously were used in the FPA will still be reported on ISS Proxy Reports.
  • ISS will now report a 3-year Multiple of Median, but it will not be factored into the ISS Quantitative Pay-for-Performance (P4P) analysis.
  • With respect to disclosure around termination and severance payments, ISS wants companies to clearly describe the type of termination (e.g., termination without cause, resignation for good reason, termination with cause, etc.) and the provision(s) by which severance payments were made under any agreement to avoid confusion and enable shareholders to assess such payments.

Pay-for-Performance Mechanics, ISS’ Qualitative and Qualitative Approach

ISS released this updated document on December 11, 2019, available at:
https://www.issgovernance.com/file/policy/latest/americas/Pay-for-Performance-Mechanics.pdf

Provides some information on how EVA measures will be used in the FPA. Note that FPA only comes into account if a company’s initial quantitative P4P score level comes in at the low bordering medium or medium concern levels.

The other change of significance is that this document details the updated thresholds for the various concern levels under the Quantitative P4P tests. For example, High Concern under the Relative Degree of Alignment (RDA) test now starts at -60 whereas before it started at -50. This change should cause fewer companies to end up with a High Concern under the RDA test.

Peer Group Selection Methodology and Issuer Submission Process, Frequently Asked Questions

This updated set of FAQs was released December 6, 2019, and is available at: https://www.issgovernance.com/file/policy/latest/americas/US-Peer-Group-FAQ.pdf

No significant changes are noted in this set of FAQs.