Targeting Odious Top Pay Contracts
Executive pay has skyrocketed in recent decades, in absolute terms and compared to average wages. The area of largest growth has been in stock-based components, including stock options, often tending to focus on the short-term, with associated risks we’ve seen. A vigorous academic debate has run for more than a decade, becoming a popular political discussion amid the financial crisis exposing arcane debate to public scrutiny.
Growth could be laudable, explained as creating proper incentives to align manager interests with shareholder interests and to promote optimal risk taking. In this view, if there is a problem, it is narrow and limited. Critics are skeptical whether this story holds up. They worry that managerial power has strengthened to enable top executives to control setting their own compensation. In this view, the problem is pervasive and warrants a comprehensive response—and proposals abound.
I come down in the middle. There are problems in at least an important number of cases, and current proposals to redress them are unlikely to work. So I seek a new approach—contract unconscionability—to police extreme cases. The proposal must surmount some hurdles but isn’t as radical as it sounds.
A good way to summarize the debate highlights a three-pronged theory that promotes much of prevailing executive compensation, especially stock-based components, and contrasts it with limits on each prong.
First: in optimal contracting theory, boards design manager contracts to minimize agency costs. But when managers dominate the process, the managerial power thesis suggests this ideal may not be met.
Second: with efficient stock markets, stock price is a good proxy for the shareholder interest and a mirror of managerial performance. But stock price can differ from business value for sustained periods, fogging both.
Third: stock-based pay could align managerial incentives with shareholder interests if designed right and markets work well. But otherwise they create perverse effects.
From the viewpoint of critics, one problem with corporate pay is relatively little legal oversight. Even well-intended boards can fail, yet corporate law defers to them; federal securities and tax law encourage stock-based pay, without regard to perverse effects.
Reforms debate expanding shareholder power to motivate boards, led by Lucian Bebchuk and Jesse Fried. Others, like David Walker, prescribe tax changes or better disclosure. Still others, others, like Randall Thomas and Harwell Wells, look to enhanced corporate law oversight, invoking officer fiduciary duties, recently explicated in Gantler v. Stephens, to police renewals of employment contracts.
Throughout debate, and most of the reforms, there is much talk of redesigning pay contracts to focus managers on long term value, not short term price, by scholars as diverse as Bebchuk/Fried to Roberta Romano. Many of these are careful and useful. What’s still missing is a way to implement them, and I suggest using private litigation and contract law.
So I invent a new way to provide legal oversight to regulate associated risk: a contract law doctrine that has much in common with corporate waste, but is slightly more capacious. Pay has been evaluated under corporate law. But its business judgment rule and deference to independent committees and process means the only possible way to prevail is under corporate law’s waste doctrine. It bans only gifts, or dumping cash into the river, so massive salaries and stock-based pay with perverse incentives are outside it.
Unconscionability has some kinship to waste. It is used sparingly, reflecting freedom of contract. It looks at procedural aspects of a transaction. But unlike waste, which varies little with context, contract law’s propensity to use unconscionability intensifies according to a coherent logic. It becomes increasingly skeptical of lop-sided bargains as it goes beyond arm’s-length deals, into those plagued by procedural irregularities, heard by courts in equity, and involving fiduciaries.
So my basic theory is simple. These are contracts and when unconscionable should be rescinded—whether or not they amount to corporate waste, or are approved by boards or shareholders. Several hurdles appear, meaning few cases succeed, catching only the most odious.
First Hurdle: The first is the internal affairs doctrine that could make pay contracts governed by the corporate law of the state of incorporation, not the contract law of another. This doctrine protects corporate participants in relations with each other against inconsistent laws. Compared to the home state, others have weak interests in internal affairs, like shareholder voting, director elections, and mergers.
Employment agreements could be internal affairs. They are authorized by the board with officers as the counter-party. They regulate the corporation-officer relation. The internal affairs case is strengthened by seeing stock-based pay as a way to align manager-shareholder interests. But they are not inevitably internal affairs. That is clearest when formed with a newly-recruited manager—an outsider. Their primary function is to get labor in exchange for pay. They are increasingly justified as recruiting and retention tools, not alignment devices. From these viewpoints, they are merely contracts.
Second Hurdle. Another hurdle could arise if managers put favorable choice of law clauses in their contracts. That’s a nice gambit but faces three limits. First, choice-of-law clauses are not dispositive. Standard conflicts of law principles apply, asking what state has greatest interest. Second, an unconscionability claim can render the entire contract unenforceable, determined before applying any contract terms, including a choice of law. Third, even a Delaware choice of law clause would mean Delaware contract law not corporate law applies, which is a bit tougher.
Third Hurdle. The next hurdle involves whether a claim is direct or derivative. If derivative, shareholders face corporate law hurdles. Most seriously, shareholders must demand that boards act or show why that’s futile and special board committees can take control of the case and even decide to dismiss it. The line between the two can be blurry. The issue is whether a harm to be remedied is better conceived as individual to a shareholder or runs to the corporation as a whole.
The conceptual difficulty makes classification turn on factors, not bright line rules. These include the theory of liability and remedy. Cases tend to classify as derivative—claims for breach of duty and seeking money damages. Cases and statutes tend to classify as direct, claims asserting lack of corporate authority (called ultra vires), and/or seeking equitable relief. Shareholder challenges to pay contracts will more likely be seen as direct by asserting that their unconscionable character puts them beyond the corporation’s authority, and the primary remedy is rescission.
Fourth/Final Hurdle. Finally, judges may exercise comity and refuse to confront these hurdles or refrain because contracts may be so complex that judges hesitate to assume competency to evaluate them. Enforcement incentives are another practical issue. It is certainly beyond the SEC’s power and probably beyond that of many states or the interests of their attorney’s general. That leaves the private bar, whose incentives may be limited. A pure case of rescission would produce no payment and even a claim accompanied by a judgment in restitution may be comparatively small. But there may be sufficient incentives for the most high-profile case that could yield instrumental and reputational value.
Still, the hurdles are formidable, though incrementally lower than under corporate law. On balance, that is desirable. There is no risk of any floodgate effect. And a few egregious cases would be enough to deter excesses.
Turning to the merits, contract analysis is slightly broader than corporate law’s. Procedural aspects are not confined to corporate law’s focus on board independence or information. Courts consider the bargaining process, probing whether it was more consistent with optimal contracting or managerial power. Substantive unconscionability analysis is contextual, so stating broad principles difficult. But some tests can be suggested. One would compare the contract’s terms with academic models appearing in the literature (whether by Bebchuk/Fried or by Romano). Conforming contracts would be presumptively valid, but those wildly out of line suspect.
Another would compare dollar amounts, though that often will be difficult, and doubts resolved in favor of upholding the agreement. But when that ratio can be measured with reasonable certainty, and does shock the judicial conscience, the contract can be declared unconscionable and rescinded.
In short, while not a slam dunk, this approach would be considerably stronger under contract law than corporate law. And that offers a new legal theory to test executive pay. Not as radical as you thought, and not merely theoretical either, as readers who specialize in lawsuits targeting corporate abuses indicate that they are prepared to apply the proposal when the right factual case comes along.