Pay versus Performance – A Comment Letter to the SEC

Following is a letter that was forwarded to the Securities and Exchange Commission, in response to a request for comment, regarding the Pay vs. Performance proposal.

June 24, 2015

 

Mr. Brent J. Fields

Secretary

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

100 F. Street, N.E.

Washington, D.C. 20549-1090

RE: File No. S7-07-15

Release No. 34-74835- Pay for Performance (the “Proposing Release”)

Dear Mr. Fields:

Thank you for allowing me to comment on this proposal.  Overall I agree with the desire for greater transparency into the compensation vs. performance relationship.  The values identified to be used to demonstrate the relationship, would serve this purpose.  However, I am not in favor of the reporting flexibility for registrants, being considered.  I do not believe the flexibility will improve the data.  Instead the flexibility may create confusion and make it very difficult to compare registrant-to-registrant information by interested parties.  The flexibility also leaves room for the potential to unintentionally mislead.

When reviewing data (financial and statistical) there are several key elements that are required to provide confidence in the conclusions.  This situation is even more pronounced when you are comparing and contrasting the results across registrants – Is the definition of the data being reviewed consistent, for every registrant?  If I chose not to act today, when I review the information in a year or two, will the original definitions I used, be valid?  Is the data disclosed by the registrants trended over a consistent time period?

My overall recommendation is that every registrant should be asked to provide the same base information, in the same format, for the same time period.  Flexibility will be limited to a page or two of explanatory notes, subsequent to the tables.  I do not believe that these requirements create a burden in any way, as I would guess/hope that organizations perform a similar analysis currently when determining compensation levels.

Disclosure (Request for Comment #1 and #3) – Executive compensation and Financial Performance information should be included in all materials/filings that discuss compensation, including information to be distributed prior to an annual meeting or special meeting or written consent in lieu of a meeting.  There are multiple filings that a company may make to the Securities and Exchange Commission.  While an analyst may read several filing types, a shareholder or potential shareholder will most likely only read materials assembled for the purpose of the annual meeting.

Compensation Disclosure (#5, #22 and #24) – Executive compensation [as defined in (Item 402(c) of Regulation S-K [17 CFR 229.402(c)] assumes the completion of a Summary Compensation Table.  The table considers the multiple forms of compensation and should be required, with the values for each compensation component provided.  Interested parties can then see for example, what part of compensation is salary vs. bonus vs. equity….  Compensation information should be provided on an accrual basis, i.e. bonus paid in January for the prior year should be attributed to the proper year, to ensure executive compensation more closely tracks Total Shareholder Return.

Tabular Presentation (#6 and #12) – Reporting components should be defined and required, for both the Summary Compensation Table; and the Pay versus Performance table (page 19 of proposal).  The actual value of the components should be provided, not just summary or ratio information.

Graphic Presentation (#7) – A Line Graph should be included which shows for the five years under review the level of Total Shareholder Return (TSR).  Underneath the TSR line (broken vertical axis), would be a line to show the executive compensation, as a group.  You should expect to see the executive compensation line track closely with the Financial Performance.  The vertical axis can be broken again to show the median of annual total compensation (as defined by Section 953(b) of the Dodd-Frank Act), trended over five years, in relation to the annual total compensation of the CEO. In a perfect world, inclines, declines, and slopes will be similar.

Additional Information (#9) – Executives by nature will debate a financial calculation/statistic they feel does not positively represent their efforts, i.e. “But you can’t look at it that way.”  The difficult part is distinguishing the validity of that statement, i.e. perceived difference vs. actual difference.  As such, registrants must be allowed to append qualitative information to the quantitative data.  In a subsequent page, management can give an explanation of the information presented, i.e. why it is an accurate portrayal or not.  However, the goal is to have every registrant start from the same perspective, i.e. a level playing field.

Financial Performance (#34, #35 and #38) – Many ratios/statistics can be used to validate performance, which may include Total Shareholder Return, Free Cash Flow, Return on Investment, Shareholder Value Added…  Each statistic has its strengths and its weaknesses.  A claim that the statistic increases short-term approaches can be made for any measure that is used to gauge success.  Based on human nature, when a statistic is reported, managers will attempt to maximize the value.

Peer Group (#40 and #41) – The same peer group used for purposes of Item 201(e) or the Compensation Discussion and Analysis should be used.  A note should be included by the registrant that advises the interested party as to the components of the peer group.  If the registrant desires to make a change, the change must be made for both uses to ensure consistency.  However, if a decision is made to change the peer group, the data must be changed for all five years displayed.  This provision will avoid multiple peer groups in one filing.

Reporting Period (#42, #44 and #46) – All information should be provided for the most recent completed five fiscal years, without aggregation, consistently required by all registrants.  The time period is sufficient.  Additional years should not be allowed in the data page or in the subsequent notes.

In summary, there is a very real danger that the flexibility provided to registrants, which is being considered, will make the implementation of the Pay vs. Performance provisions confusing to investors.   In essence, if the rule was developed to assist investors, consistency, transparency and the ability to evaluate registrants is critical.

My recommendation is that every registrant should be asked to provide the same base information, in the same format, for the same period.  Flexibility will be limited to a page or two of explanatory footnotes.  I do not believe that these requirements create a burden in any way.

Please feel free to contact me if there are any questions with my recommendations.

 

Sincerely,

Regis Quirin

 

Author: Regis Quirin
Visit Regis's Website - Email Regis
Regis Quirin is a financial executive with 23 years of corporate experience, i.e. New York Stock Exchange, JP Morgan Chase, and GMAC ResCap; and 15 years working with small and medium-sized entities, i.e. joint ventures, start-up entities, established businesses. In 2014, Regis published "Redesign to Turnaround Underperforming Small and Medium-Sized Businesses" available via Amazon.

The Problem with the McDonald’s Turnaround

On May 4th2015, McDonald’s Corporation  announced initial steps in a turnaround plan which included the following activities – restructure the business into four segments, beginning July 1, 2015 – U.S., International Lead Markets, High Growth Markets, and Foundational Markets; refranchise 3,500 restaurants by the end of 2018; capture approximately $300 million in annual general & administrative expense savings; and, embark on a three-year return of cash program to shareholders totaling $18 to $20 billion.

Other than the announcement of a turnaround, there was no complete turnaround plan communicated, i.e. what happened to place you in this situation and what is your plan to get out of it.  At this point, all we have to go on is a collection of press articles and press releases.

The clearest sign that turnaround assistance is required is after a steady erosion of your business economics.  The turnaround at McDonald’s Corporation is required based on the substantial economic drop in its business model, since 2013 –

As of Revenues ($000) Gross Profits ($000) Profit Margin
12/31/2014 $27,441,300 $10,455,700 17.00%
12/31/2013 $28,105,700 $10,902,700 20.00%
12/31/2012 $27,567,000 $10,816,300 20.00%
12/31/2011 $27,006,000 $10,686,600 20.00%

http://www.nasdaq.com/symbol/mcd/financials?query=income-statement

A business may find itself in need of turnaround assistance based on unforeseen external factors.  There are many reasons why an organization may require turnaround assistance.  Rarely is it due to a single factor.  The primary impetus for the McDonald’s Corporation turnaround requirement seems to be associated with competition from new entrants to the market and shifting consumer preferences.

In any turnaround, transparency and communications are integral for investors, analysts, potential franchise owners, rating agencies and employees.  When the turnaround is transparent, interested parties understand your direction and the value of the changes being implemented.  But absent this information, confusion is a high probability.  Based on a review of openly available information – some of the action items slated for implementation seem to be contradictions.

Steam-line menu

Variations and food options impact the speed and efficiency of the restaurant kitchens.  Testing is underway in Delaware, Little Rock, Waco, Bakersfield, Macon and Knoxville to simplify the menu and reduce options.  However, in another article you may read about menu additions planned or being tested, including all day breakfast, burger customization, a premium sirloin burger, and a premium chicken sandwich.  As of 2014, McDonald’s Corporation maintained 121 menu items.  Will the additions come before the reductions, further slowing down the restaurant kitchens?  What has the research shown with respect to the expected impact on customer satisfaction, from the menu reductions?

I believe that McDonald’s is a victim of it branding. The company is positioned as great tasting and inexpensive food. Where ever I go in the United States, I can purchase the same meal, with the safe quality. Most of us can repeat the ingredients in a Big Mac, i.e. two all-beef patties, special sauce… That is part of its branding. The slogan did not end with “or feel free to change it up.” The positioning – consistent quality, fast and at a low cost.

I do not think of McDonald’s when I want healthy or organic or custom fare. Very few brands have ever had success at a quality transformation. The only transformation that comes to mind is “Made in Japan.” That was not a positive in the 70’s. But in the 80’s, that all changed with the explosion of Japanese vehicles, i.e. Honda and Toyota. While it is not impossible, it is very expensive to re-brand.

Return cash to shareholders

On the heels of the recent year-to-year decline in profits from 2013 to 2014, McDonald’s Corporation intends to return $8 to $9 billion to shareholders in 2015.  At the same time, McDonald’s will be embarking on a turnaround which requires the use of surplus cash up front, to design new processes and launch new products.  For example, a new 31 page procedure to improve order taking and fulfillment accuracy was implemented in a Wyoming franchise, beginning December 2013.  The change was implemented to reduce the time to service customers, and increase customer satisfaction.  Based on its success, training and roll-out is slated for the summer 2015.  The role out of this new process to all 36,000 locations will require an investment by the organization.

Recently, the rating on McDonald’s Corporation debt was lowered by the three big rating agencies – Fitch lowered its issuer default and senior unsecured rating to triple-B-plus from A; S&P lowered its corporate credit rating to A- from A; and Moody’s lowered its senior unsecured rating to A3 from A2.  As McDonald’s debt ratings decline, the cost of borrowing will increase for the corporation.

Data Distribution

A redesign to turnaround a business cannot be completed behind the scenes.  Progress sharing with your investors, analysts and employees is very important.  But beginning July 1, McDonald’s Corporation will discontinue reporting sales figures monthly, and will begin to only report quarterly.  A turnaround usually results in a period of high analysis and the development of metrics to measure and manage the business.  Success at achieving your strategic goals, based on the metrics, is important to stakeholders.  Reducing the flow of information during a turnaround, may be counter productive to your efforts.

Once a Turnaround is announced, the focus should be on strategy, planning, cash flow, reporting, optimizing policies and procedures, marketing and business development.  However, currently McDonald’s Corporation is experiencing an attack on its brand from several fronts.  These attacks can be distracting and damaging in the press, when interested parties do not have a full understanding of your intended direction.  Examples of two such issues include – a Legal proceeding to determine if McDonald’s Corporation shares some responsibility for the actions of franchise employees, with respect to low wages; and The Children’s Advertising Review Unit claimed that McDonald’s Corporation advertising placed an emphasis on the toy that was part of the Happy Meal vs. the food in the Happy Meal.

I believe that McDonald’s Corporation would benefit if the turnaround plans were more fully communicated to investors, analysts, potential franchise owners, rating agencies and employees.

Author: Regis Quirin
Visit Regis's Website - Email Regis
Regis Quirin is a financial executive with 23 years of corporate experience, i.e. New York Stock Exchange, JP Morgan Chase, and GMAC ResCap; and 15 years working with small and medium-sized entities, i.e. joint ventures, start-up entities, established businesses. In 2014, Regis published "Redesign to Turnaround Underperforming Small and Medium-Sized Businesses" available via Amazon.