What Public Companies Can Learn from Private Equity Pay Plans

Studies of private equity pay, including one by current SEC commissioner Robert Jackson, have pointed to restrictions on equity sales as a key difference between private equity and public company pay. In this article, the author argues that there is another very important difference: equity compensation in PE pay plans is typically front loaded, with top executives of portfolio companies often required to buy shares, and receiving upfront option grants on three times the number of shares they purchase.

Such front-loaded equity compensation allows PE pay plans to avoid the unintended effects of the “competitive pay policy” that have been embraced by public companies for the past 50 years. Competitive pay—targeted, for example, to provide 50th percentile total compensation regardless of past performance—has the effect of creating a systematic “performance penalty,” rewarding poor performance with more shares and penalizing superior performance with fewer shares. The author’s research shows that, for public companies during the past decade or so, the number of shares granted has fallen by 7% for each 10% increase in share prices—and that, primarily for this reason, the front loaded option grants used by PE firms have provided five times more incentive (“pay leverage”) than the average public company’s annual series of equity grants.

What’s more, to the extent that PE pay has been guided by partnership and fixed-sharing concepts rather than competitive pay, it is the spiritual heir to the value-sharing concepts that guided public company pay in the first half of the 20th century. For 60 years, General Motors used value sharing in “economic profit”—10% of GM’s profit above a 7% return on capital was the formula for the bonus pool for many years—as the basis for all incentive compensation. The author uses the GM history to highlight four ways to improve public company incentives and corporate governance.