The Advisors' Blog

This blog features wisdom from respected compensation consultants and lawyers

March 17, 2010

A Fuss Over Semi-Annual Bonuses

Broc Romanek,

Just when “bonus” has become the equivalent of a four-letter word in households across the country, the WSJ ran this article noting that at least 50 companies have recently disclosed plans to pay semiannual bonuses, with more than half of them having adopted the plans since 2008 (fyi, the Hay Group did the research for the WSJ on this). This piece ignited a hailstorm in my world as nearly 2 dozen journalists called me yesterday seeking comment.

My immediate take was that there wouldn’t seem to be justification for such a widespread move and that this short-term approach fostered by more frequent bonuses could cause even more managers to manipulate the numbers and all the other perils of short-termism. And for the most part, that is still my position.

However, I checked in with some of the responsible experts that we deal with frequently and got this feedback:

Semi-annual bonuses were adopted by a small fraction of companies due to those companies’ inability (or unwillingness) to set 12 month financial targets due to the uncertainty of the economy. I’ve seen companies adopt the semi-annual approach and they seem to only pay the bonus when the calendar year is over. I imagine the compensation committees made sure the goals were stretch-based on the best available information at the time the goals were set. Some of these same companies retained the discretion to reduce bonuses prior to payment after taking stock of the year as a whole.

I do not disagree with you that using six-month measurement periods is too short-term, but it’s possible that the compensation committees took comfort in the fact that LTI represented the largest component of pay and most executives have substantial ownership, so the risk of maximizing short-term results at the expense of long-term performance was fairly modest.

This too shall pass, as compensation committees hate negotiating bonus targets two times per year (or even four times if you count the end-of-the-period negotiations on what to include – or exclude – in the final performance calculations).

Another expert noted that the two industries highlighted – tech and retail – are long-time users of semi-annual and quarterly bonuses. Take those out of the data and this is only a handful of companies. See Fred Whittlesey’s blog about “when is a trend not a trend”…