Commentators have long focused on CEO compensation as a leading corporate governance concern. Indeed, the Corporate Library has even suggested (here) that CEO compensation practices that “are poorly-aligned with shareholder interests” are “a powerful indicator of potential securities litigation.” While CEO compensation unquestionably is an important issue, academic research recently published by three Michigan State professors suggests that the CFO’s compensation may be even more important than that of the CEO.

In an April 15, 2008 paper entitled “CFOs and CEOs: Who Has the Most Influence on Earnings Management”(here),  John Jiang, Kathy Petroni and Isabel Yanan Wang report on their investigation “whether CFOs’ equity incentives are associated with earnings management, and whether earnings management is more sensitive to CFOs’ equity incentives than to those of the CEOs.” Prior research has focused primarily on CEOs’ compensation, based on conventional wisdom that because CEOs’ equity compensation was greater than that of CFOs, it should be more influential. In addition, it was generally presumed that because the CFO is the CEO’s agent and the CEO has the power to replace the CFO, “CFOs do not respond directly to their own equity incentives but only to the wishes of their CEO.”

Contrary to these prior assumptions, the authors posited that CFOs equity incentives “may have a stronger impact on earnings management than those of the CEOs, because CFOs have the ultimate responsibility for the management of the financial system, including the preparation of the financial report.”

The authors used a database for the S&P 1500 for the period 1993 through 2006, representing 17,542 firm years of compensation data. The authors examined the CFOs’ equity incentives in three settings where prior research had demonstrated an association between CEOs’ equity incentives and earnings management, namely (1) accruals; (2) the likelihood of beating earnings benchmarks; and (3) the likelihood of restatements.

Based on their analysis, the authors conclude that “because CFOs are primarily responsible for preparing the financial statements, the impact of their equity incentives on financial reporting dominates the impact of the CEOs’ equity incentives.” Indeed, the authors conclude that “earnings management is a key tool that the CFO can expertly use to respond to equity incentives.”

Although the paper has a number of interesting insights, perhaps the most interesting is the authors’ analysis of the way that CFOs respond to the prospect of option grants. The authors found that the occurrence of the grant of options to the CFO was positively correlated to the occurrence of an earnings miss (which would lower the option strike price and thus make the grant potentially more valuable). The authors further concluded that “the likelihood of missing earnings benchmarks is higher for stock options granted to the CFO relative to those granted to the CEO and in some cases significantly so.”

One of the fundamental tenets for the compensation of corporate executives is that the executives’ interests should be aligned with those of the shareholders, and that the best way to achieve alignment is through equity-based compensation. The authors’ research suggests, however, that equity-based compensation may not create alignment, but rather motivates earnings management. Indeed, the authors’ research could be read to suggest that the equity-based compensation could create incentives that are contrary to shareholders’ interests, because shareholders obviously have no interest, for example, in engineered misses of earnings estimates.

The authors do conclude that their research underscores the importance of the SEC’s recently adopted provisions requiring disclosure of CFO compensation. This disclosure, the authors state, “should be relevant to users of financial statements in evaluating the quality of firms’ financial reporting.”

Among those to whom the CFO compensation information could be of interest are D&O underwriters. While the authors’ research does not directly make the connection between CFO equity compensation and the incidence of securities lawsuits, the link the authors do establish between CFO equity incentive compensation and earnings management should be sufficient to suggest the relevance of CFO equity compensation for D&O underwriting purposes. If, as the Corporate Library proposes, CEO compensation is an important indicator of securities litigation susceptibility, then the research of these three Michigan State professors could be interpreted to suggest that CFO compensation is also an important indicator, perhaps even more so.

Hat tip to the CFO Blog (here) for the link to the academic research paper.

For Better or Worse – Unless You Wind Up in Jail: This blog does not ordinarily comment on domestic relations issues, but we did fund it noteworthy that, according to news reports (here), former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski was about to reach terms for his divorce from his wife, the former Karen Mayo. Mayo is the former waitress whom Kozlowski married in 2001, and whose $2 million Roman-themed 40th birthday party on Sardinia that same year ultimately proved to be a key component of Kozlowski’s later criminal trial.

According to news reports, Mayo had request that the couple’s assets be split equally and she also sought alimony. The news reports do not disclose whether Mayo will receive a portion of the $1/day Kozlowski now reportedly receives “mopping floors or slinging hash” to fellow inmates at the New York correctional facility where he is serving a term of between eight years, four months and twenty-five years.