US companies tweak CEO pay packages ahead of shareholder scrutiny

City A.M. Reporter
LARGE US companies are taking pains to show how compensation is linked to performance as they prepare to present lucrative executive pay packages to shareholders.

Nearly half of US firms surveyed by consulting firm Towers Watson were adjusting their pay-setting process ahead of the spring votes required at least every three years under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

The "say-on-pay" votes are non-binding and come after a strong rally in shares and two years of improved corporate earnings, perhaps blunting shareholder anger at packages that averaged $9.25m (£5.95m) for CEOs at S&P 500 companies in 2009.

That is 263 times the average worker's pay, according to AFL-CIO data.

But advocates of the measure and some compensation experts say a number of pay packages are likely to be rejected by shareholders, putting pressure on boards to improve compensation practices for chief executives and other top officers.

"There's a very strong awareness in the boardroom that shareholders are going to be paying attention to pay for performance," said Doug Friske, global leader of compensation at Towers Watson.

Some companies had already allowed advisory votes on pay as part of their annual meetings, but the Dodd-Frank law that was enacted last year ensures wide use.

Though many companies have already improved compensation practices, they are paying more attention to how they explain their pay policies and taking a second look at the link to performance, according to the survey by Towers Watson.

Visa Inc , Johnson Controls and Monsanto Co, for example, have all said they ended or limited some tax gross-ups, which are reimbursements for taxes paid on perks or so-called golden parachutes.

Visa also said it ended purely personal use of its corporate aircraft by top executives, a trend seen at many other large U.S. companies in recent years.