Human Capital & Careers

Axes Sharpen for Executive Bonuses

Year-end payouts will be smaller, or nonexistent, at almost half of companies, a new survey says.
Stephen TaubDecember 12, 2008

Roughly half of 264 companies responding to a Watson Wyatt survey say they will reduce the size of their executive bonus pool from last year.

Among the 49 percent that plan such reductions, 30 percent expect a cut of up to 20 percent, 35 percent say they’ll drop bonuses 20 percent to 50 percent, and 23 percent will cut 50 percent or more. Eleven percent do not plan to pay any annual bonuses.

To be sure, most executives won’t have to look for a second job as a result of these developments. For example, The New York Post reported that Goldman Sachs will announce next week that its compensation fund, from which it will pay this year’s bonuses, is expected to drop 40 percent. But the pool will still be about $12 billion.

The paper also noted that top bankers could see their bonuses plunge by as much as 80 percent, while the hit could be 50 percent for lower-level workers.

A Little Off the Top
The recession is forcing companies to reduce executive pay packages.
Action Percentage of companies that already made changes Percentage of companies expected to make changes in 12 months
Decrease planned merit increases 30 9
Freeze salaries 21 3
Delay planned merit increases 13 3
Reduce salaries 2 0
Reduce/eliminate SERPs 8 1
Reduce/eliminate perqs 17 4
Add clawback program 13 1
Source: Watson Wyatt, December 2008.

“Companies are going into 2009 expecting hard times,” says Ira Kay, global director of executive-compensation consulting at Watson Wyatt. “Given the enormous pressure to respond to shareholders, who have been hit hard by the economic crisis, it’s no surprise that all aspects of executive-pay programs are being scrutinized.”

The Watson Wyatt survey, which includes responses from companies across a variety of industries, also found that nearly one-quarter (23 percent) expect the dollar value of their long-term incentive grants to decrease in the next year, most likely as a consequence of the recent fall in the equities market.

The survey also found that companies will be putting less emphasis on stock options and relying more on performance-based restricted stock in the coming year.

In addition, nearly one in four companies (24 percent) has frozen or expects to freeze executive salaries within the next year, and 39 percent have decreased or expect to decrease planned merit increases.

Just 21 percent have reduced or plan to reduce perquisites, while 14 percent have added or plan to add clawbacks.

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