Intelligent and well-meaning as they are, critics of Warren Buffett’s decision to have Berkshire Hathaway abstain from voting as a shareholder of Coca-Cola on the latter’s executive pay proposal suffer from two problems. Some, like Joe Nocera of the New York Times, seem to believe that, since Buffett is powerful and historically a strong vocal critic of executive compensation, he is obliged to cast Berkshire’s vote against it. When he explained last weekend that directors may not always vote against proposals with which they disagreed others, including Vitaliy Katsenelson at the Institutional Investor, lamented that directors may not always stand up for what they believe.
These positions are a combination of misreading history and naïve. Buffett has always stressed that, as costly to shareholders as executive compensation may be, in raw amounts and in terms of conflicts of interest, they pale in comparison to the vastly larger costs to shareholders of other conflicts between executives and shareholders, especially on acquisitions. No rational investor should believe that directors are unabashed devotees of the shareholder interest at every turn. Here is an excerpt from remarks Buffett made as discussant at a Cardozo Law School conference I hosted in 1997, the themes of which he has repeated for two decades:
As a stockholder, I’m really only interested in the board accomplishing two ends. One is to get a first class manager and the second is to intervene in some way when even that first class manager will have interests that are contrary to the interests of the owners.
I think there are great difficulties in achieving both of those ends. I’ve been a director of, counting them up, seventeen publicly owned companies, not counting ones which we control (which probably shows a very dominant, masochistic gene) (laughter). But over that time I’ve wrestled with just these couple of problems and there may be processes that would improve them.
The first one: getting the first class manager. I have never seen in those seventeen cases – and I’m not aware of it in other cases – where a question of mediocrity or worse and the evaluation of change has been made in the presence of a chief executive. It just doesn’t happen. So, I think absolutely to have any chance of having that one solved, you have to have regular meetings of evaluation of chief executives, absent that chief executive. If they are rump meetings or something of the sort – if they’re not regularly scheduled – there is just too much tension created. Because a board may be a legal creation, but it’s a social animal. It is very difficult for a group of people without a very strong leader to all of a sudden, spontaneously decide that they’re going to hold some meetings elsewhere and discuss whether this person who may be a perfectly decent individual, really should be batting clean-up.
So, I think there should be a lot of emphasis on process in terms of evaluation of a CEO. I don’t know how you create a greater willingness on the part of directors to really bounce somebody that they would bounce if they owned 100% of the company or if their family was dependent on the income from the business and so on. I just have not seen it in corporate America.
If you get that first class chief executive – which is a top priority – he doesn’t have to be the best in the world, just a first class one. And I may agree with Jill to some extent – you may be able to turn a five into a five-and-a-half or something by having him consult with lots of other CEOs and get a lot of advice from the board. But my experience is that you don’t turn a five into an eight. I think you’re better off getting rid of the five and having him find something else to do in life and going out and acquiring an eight.
The second problem is: even a first class chief executive has some interests that are in conflict with the shareholders. One is his or her own compensation. The second one gets into the acquisition category. There are psychic benefits to an executive of running a bigger show or just having more action or whatever that can be in conflict with the shareholders, even though that executive may be first class in other respects. The nature of acquisitions is that they get to the board at a point where if you turn them down you are rejecting the chief executive, you are embarrassing him in front of his troops, you’re doing all kinds of things. So, it just doesn’t happen.
I have seen board after board approve deals that afterwards the board members say, “you know, I really didn’t think it was a very good idea but what could we do about it?” And there should be a better mechanism. But I’m not sure what it is. There should be a better mechanism, though, for a board to make those important decisions where a first class chief executive can have an absolutely different equation than the shareholders, weighing all of the personal economic and non-economic considerations. There should be a mechanism that enables the board to bring independent judgment on those in a way that doesn’t put the CEO in a position virtually where he or she has to resign or is embarrassed in front of the troops. And I would welcome any discussion on those matters.
The compensation question where the first class executive could be in conflict with the owners, I think it gets abused some but I don’t think that it amounts to that much when compared with the other two questions – getting the right one and also the question of acquisitions. I think it costs shareholders some money that’s unnecessary, and I think that a lot of the compensation schemes have been quite illogical, but I don’t think that they are overwhelming in terms of evaluation.
On compensation, I can turn purple in meetings. But in the end, the big, dumb acquisitions are going to cost shareholders far, far more money than all of the other stuff.