Aligning Interests

By Jean-Pierre Berliet

Companies that withstood the crisis and are now poised for continuing success have been disciplined about aligning interests of shareholders and managers

Separation of ownership and control creates conflicts of interests between managers and owners. To mitigate this situation, companies expend much effort to develop and implement incentive compensation systems that align the interests of managers and shareholders. The present crisis demonstrates clearly, however, that such arrangements are imperfect: large incentive payments were made to many people in companies that have performed poorly or even failed. There has been a public outcry.

But there is nothing really new in misalignments of incentives, or weaknesses in incentive designs that produce harmful results: they exist in every company to some degree. In a typical situation, managers are concerned about minimizing financial and career consequences of not achieving their objectives. If the situation requires it, managers will exploit every opportunity to change their operating plans to achieve their targets. They will seek and capitalize on opportunities to convert unreported intangible assets, such as market share, product or service quality, product leadership, plant productivity or customer service responsiveness into current profits by postponing and reducing related expenses. Financial results will look good, and they will be praised for accomplishing their objectives. Actions that they took, however, accelerated uncertain future income to the present period while undermining the company’s competitive capabilities and reducing the sustainability of its performance. This is dangerous. Mitigating this form of moral hazard is difficult because its effects are not readily apparent.

In insurance companies (and banks), business managers have even greater opportunities to “game” incentive plans:  they can increase reported business volume and profit in the current period by slightly under-pricing or increasing risks assumed.  This approach to “making the numbers” is particularly tempting in lines of coverage in which losses can take many years to emerge and develop; it is also particularly dangerous because losses from mispriced policies, especially in lines with high severity/low frequency loss experience can be devastating.  Similarly, investment officers can invest in assets that offer higher yields to increase portfolio performance, while involving risks that can result in significant capital losses later.

Based on these observations, Directors and CEOs of insurance companies need to work with management to:

  • Link incentive compensation payments to the ultimate outcome of business written rather than to current profits (especially when fair value accounting standards cause immediate recognition of profits on contracts).
  • Establish and empower an internal control and audit function to verify that managers’ actions are aligned with business strategies and plans.
  • Verify the integrity of underwriting and investment decisions, in relation to explicitly approved guidelines and processes.

The present crisis has demonstrated how unbundling of risk assumption businesses can increase moral hazard by redistributing risks, gains and potential losses across originators, arrangers of securitization transactions and investors/risk bearers.

Reconstruction of incentive programs and establishment of appropriate oversight and enforcement mechanisms are needed to reduce moral hazard and restore confidence in the financial system, including insurance companies.

©Jean-Pierre Berliet   Berliet Associates, LLC  (203) 972-0256 jpberliet@att.net

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