Elements of Executive Compensation

At the heart of most executive compensation plans is the idea that executives should be rewarded if the organization grows in profitability and value over a period of years. Because many executives are in high tax brackets, their compensation often is provided in ways that offer significant tax savings. Therefore, their total compensation packages are more significant than their base pay. Especially when the base salary is $1 million or more, the executive often is interested in the mix of items in the total package, including current and deferred compensation.

Salaries of executives vary by type of job, size of organization, region of the country, and industry. On average, salaries make up about 40-60% of the typical top executive’s annual compensation total. At times publicly traded company to hike or reduce the salary of executive based on performance, approval may be needed from directors and shareholders .

Because executive performance may be difficult to determine, bonus compensation must reflect some kind of performance measure if it is to be meaningful. As an example, a retail chain with over 250 stores ties annual bonuses for managers to store profitability. The bonuses have amounted to as much as 35% of a store manager’s base salary.

Bonuses for executives can be determined in several ways. A discretionary system whereby bonuses are awarded based on the judgments of the chief executive officer and the board of directors is one way. However, the absence of formal, measurable targets is a major drawback of this approach. Also, as noted, bonuses can be tied to specific measures, such as return on investment, earnings per share, or net profits before taxes. More complex systems create bonus pools and thresholds above which bonuses are computed. Whatever method is used, it is important to describe it so that executives trying to earn bonuses understand the plan; otherwise, the incentive effect will be diminished.

Performance-based incentives attempt to tie executive compensation to the long-term growth and success of the organization. However, whether the emphasis is really on the long term or merely represents a series of short-term rewards is controversial. Short-term rewards based on quarterly or annual performance may not result in the kind of long-run-oriented decisions necessary for the company to continue to do well.

A stock option gives an individual the right to buy stock in a company, usually at an advantageous price. Different types of stock options have been used depending on the tax laws in effect. Stock options have increased in use as a component of executive compensation during the past 10 years, and employers may use a variety of very specialized and technical approaches to them, which are beyond the scope of this discussion. However, the overall trend is toward using stock options as performance-based long-term incentives.

Where stock is closely held, firms may grant “stock equivalencies” in the form of phantom stock or share appreciation rights. These plans pay recipients the increased value of the stock in the future, determined by a base valuation made at the time the phantom stock or share appreciation rights are given. Depending on how these plans are established, the executives may be able to defer taxes or be taxed at lower capital-gains tax rates.

As with benefits for non-executive employees, executive benefits may take several forms, including traditional retirement, health insurance, vacations, and others. However, executive benefits may include some items that other employees do not receive. For example, executive health plans with no co-payments and with no limitations on deductibles or physician choice are popular among small and middle-sized businesses. Corporate-owned life insurance on the life of the executive is popular and pays both the executive’s estate and the company in the event of death. Trusts of various kinds may be designed by the company to help the executive deal with estate issues. Deferred compensation is another possible means used to help executives with tax liabilities caused by incentive compensation plans.

In addition to the regular benefits received by all employees, executives often receive benefits called perquisites. Perquisites (perks) are special executive benefits—usually noncash items. Perks are useful in tying executives to organizations and in demonstrating their importance to the companies. It is the status enhancement value of perks that is important to many executives. Visible symbols of status allow executives to be seen as “very important people (VIPs)” both inside and outside their organizations. In addition, perks can offer substantial tax savings because many perks are not taxed as income.

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