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Article | Executive Pay Memo Asia Pacific

Asia Pacific incentive plans will look a bit different in 2021

Governance Advisory Services |Executive Compensation
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Don Delves and Trey Davis | August 24, 2020

Companies across the region are beginning to evaluate incentive plans for 2021 amid great uncertainty and risk. These time-tested initiatives can help them respond.

Foreword

We are in a period of great uncertainty that we have not seen at any time in recent history. And that uncertainty will extend well into 2021 — and possibly beyond. Fall 2020 is the time to start planning how to adapt and re-design 2021 annual and long-term incentive plans for this new reality. This article describes several time-tested incentive design practices to respond to the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic.


With fall nearly here, calendar year companies across Asia Pacific need to start thinking about their incentive compensation plans for 2021. Most of us are recognizing that the pandemic and related economic woes are not going to end easily or quickly. Companies need to plan for the many challenges that they and their workers and families will face well into next year.

The timing and speed of an economic recovery is debatable, but one thing we know for certain is that we are living with much greater uncertainty and risk today than before the pandemic. We also know, or can assume, that we will be living with that uncertainty and risk next year. The economy going into 2021 will be weaker than it was going into 2020. And for most companies, this year’s business plans and projections were optimistic compared to 2019.

As organizations begin to evaluate their annual and long-term incentive plans for 2021, there are several initiatives companies should consider:

  • De-risk the incentives. In a higher risk business environment with greater uncertainty, it usually makes sense to reduce the risk and leverage embedded in incentives. This means less upside and less downside, and less incremental payout per unit of incremental performance. This can be accomplished with:
    • Wider performance ranges, which flatten the payout curve.
    • Lower maximum and minimum payouts (25% to 150% of target, rather than 50% to 200%).
    • Flatter targets. Instead of making target performance one number or point on the payout curve, make it a range, say between 97% and 103% of the business plan.
  • Set lower performance goals. Given the likely economy in 2021, most companies will be looking at lower performance goals for 2021 than they had for this year or 2019. If companies reduce goals, they should consider the total cost of the incentive plan relative to the lower profit or other performance goal to make sure appropriate sharing ratios (total incentive plan cost as a percentage of net income, EBITDA or other measure) are maintained within a reasonable range. This is especially true for small and mid-size companies, and marginally profitable companies. In countries such as India, local regulations on director pay as a portion of profits should be kept in mind when reviewing the alignment of performance and payouts.
  • Change performance measure mix. In a more uncertain, lower growth environment, it may make sense to place a higher weight on cash flow or EBITDA and a lower weight on revenue, for example. This will depend on what opportunities and challenges a company is facing and how different they are from their pre-COVID business environment.
  • Consider strategic measures/objectives. This may be the time to make key strategic moves like making an acquisition, exiting a business, repositioning assets, accelerating new technologies, shifting costs and investments between businesses, or taking advantage of market inefficiencies and dislocations. In particular, the pandemic has highlighted the need to rethink staffing and work models to maintain employee engagement and efficiencies. Introducing a “milestone” component to the incentive plan based on the achievement of one or more key strategic objectives may be worth considering.
  • Consider relative performance measures. In uncertain times, performance relative to peers is a good way to gauge how well a company is performing and avoids the difficult challenge of setting goals. However, other than relative Total Shareholder Return, relative measures are difficult to use. While measuring your own company’s financial performance may be easy, making direct comparisons to other companies, especially those in other countries, is fraught with challenges with definitions, adjustments, inconsistent reporting and timing of data availability. Relative performance is best kept relatively simple – metrics such as revenue growth or unadjusted earnings growth are likely the easiest to implement.
  • Check long-term incentive mix. Compared to typical Western market practices, Asian companies rely more on share options and time-vesting restricted shares. This practice may carry more benefits in these uncertain times. For a number of good reasons, Asian companies have been moving to an LTI mix that is more reliant on performance-vesting shares, but 2021 may be an appropriate time for companies to ensure that in these uncertain times they are not relying too much on performance-vesting shares.
  • Consider annual goals for long-term performance plans. Since setting three-year goals may be nearly impossible, companies should consider a plan with three one-year goals. Or, rather than setting three-year cumulative goals, consider average performance over three years, or simply focus on performance in the third year of the plan (for example, achieve a certain level of revenue or profit by year three).

Some aspects of the pandemic-driven recession are temporary, but others will be more permanent and reflect fundamental shifts in the economy and how business gets done. As a result, as companies adapt their 2021 incentive plans to the current reality, they should consider whether the changes are temporary to reflect these unusual times or are more reflective of longer-term changes in the business landscape and strategy.

A version of this article appeared on Workspan Daily on August 13, 2020.

Authors

Managing Director, Executive Compensation Practice Leader - North America (Chicago)

Leader, Executive Compensation, Asia Pacific
Willis Towers Watson

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