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Long-term incentives, or LTI as they’re often called, are a valuable part of a total compensation package both for delivering rewards and focusing employees on desired future outcomes and objectives. LTI also serves as a retention tool because the value of the reward is usually not realized until some future point in time, therefore encouraging the employee to stay engaged and focused on desired results as well as employed with the organization. However, because LTI are typically part of the reward strategy for only a subset of the employee population, not all human resources personnel or compensation practitioners are familiar with various LTI vehicles, their pros and cons, and the value they deliver. If you’re in that position, or are in need of a refresher, read on for a primer on LTI.
A long-term incentive, as the name suggests, is a vehicle that has an extended time horizon (generally greater than one year) and that can be a strategic compensation vehicle to promote long-term retention and alignment with company goals. LTI can be a win-win for all participants:
LTI can generally be broken down into following three types:
A stock option entitles the grantee the right to purchase shares of a company at a fixed price (known as the exercise price) in the future. Generally, the option’s exercise price will be the stock’s closing price on the date of the grant. Once a stock option vests (see “What is Vesting?” below), the grantee can exercise the right to purchase stock at the exercise price. For example, if a share is trading at $10, and the exercise price is $5, the grantee can purchase a share at $5 and sell at $10 in the open market, resulting in a $5 profit per unit.
The window of time that a grantee can exercise the option is referred to as the term. Most companies grant options with 10-year terms. An option has no value if in the future the share of the company is below the exercise price (since the grantee would be paying above-market price, and there would be no impetus to exercise the option). These options are referred to as being “underwater.”
Stock appreciation rights
Stock Appreciation Rights, or SARs, function very similarly to a stock option in that a recipient of an SAR will receive the value of the increase in stock price in cash (though sometimes it is received in stock). The major distinction between an SAR and a stock option is that an SAR does not require the actual purchase of shares.
Time-based restricted stock/restricted stock units
Time-based restricted stock/units vest based on a predetermined length of time. A company can choose to grant equity based on a predefined value on the grant date or predefined number of shares (the former is more popular). Unlike an appreciation-based award, a restricted stock will still have value upon vesting even if the per-stock value decreases.
These are also full-value shares; however, the vesting of these types of shares is contingent upon meeting predetermined performance goals. These goals can be internal or external, and can be measured on a relative basis (compared to other companies), absolute basis (compared to predefined achievement levels), or both. These have grown in popularity over recent years due to the ease of linking payout to long-term performance. Metrics used by companies differ but are generally consistent within each industry, since the metrics that define good performance tend to be similar. One of the most popular metrics is total shareholder return (TSR), which measures the increase in share price over a predefined period (most commonly three years).
Companies will generally grant 100% of shares at a target level and give the shares both downward and upward leverage (meaning shares can vest at less than 100% for poor performance, and shares can vest at greater than 100% for outstanding performance).
Long-term cash units
These are non-equity-based long-term grants that pay out in cash. The grantee will receive a cash payout after the vesting period.
Performance cash units
These are cash-based long-term grants that vest based on performance achievement. These are more common at private companies, due to the difficulty of share valuation.
LTI are typically granted with what is known as a vesting period. What this means is that grantees are conditionally granted equity, but they do not actually own it until the vesting period expires. This is the retentive feature of LTI; unless the grantee fulfils the applicable vesting requirement (e.g., staying with the company for three years after grant or meeting a performance goal), they forfeit the grant.
There are two types of vesting: cliff and ratable. Awards that cliff vest are paid out all at once, at the conclusion of a predetermined time period. Awards that vest ratably vest a portion at a time (e.g., an award that vests 25% each year for four years). If an employee terminates prior to the end of the final vesting period, the employee still owns the portion that has vested.
Commonly, LTI are more prevalent for employees at higher levels of an organization because the value of the company is predominately affected by those with line-of-sight into the long-term strategic vision of the company. Let’s say a company grants performance shares that are contingent on achieving a net income target. Would the CEO be able to influence corporate profitability? Yes (at least we hope so). But an entry-level accountant? Probably not. There is less value in administering performance-based LTI to lower-level positions, since these roles do not have the impact to effect that type of change. For this reason, LTI for lower-level employees typically focus more on retention. Incorporating ESG incentives into your LTI plans, for example, is one of the emerging ways that these plans can help to improve retention.
LTI are more prevalent at public companies because of their liquidity and ease of valuation (i.e., a share of a public company is valued by and can be sold on the open market, whereas the value of a share at a private company can differ widely based on valuation methodology).
The appropriateness of an LTI vehicle ultimately varies from company to company. No one LTI vehicle is superior to another, and it typically requires an overall assessment of culture, company strategy, and goals to select the right mix, amounts, and vesting mechanics. Mercer consultants have experience in every industry and can help you determine the right approach when it comes to utilizing long-term incentives as part of the total rewards package for your employees.
To help you consider the best long-term incentive solutions for your employees check out the Mercer Benchmark Database: Long-term Incentive and Equity Report for the United States or Canada.
If you’re interested in learning about competitive short-term incentives as well as long-term ones, Mercer also offers short-term reports for the United States or Canada.
Taiki Miki consults on executive and broad-based compensation strategies for both public and private companies.