Executive Compensation: Excessive Salary or Disguised Dividend?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently took up the case of Menard v. Commissioner, 560 F.3d 620 (2009), considering whether the CEO of a privately-held company was receiving a dividend disguised as salary from the business he controlled. The CEO whose salary was questioned was John Menard, founder and controlling shareholder of Menards, a chain of retail hardware and building supply stores. The Tax Court took the position that John Menard’s $20 million salary was really a disguised dividend because it was much greater than the salaries of the Home Depot and Lowe’s CEOs, who earned $2.8 million and $6.1 million respectively.

The appellate court’s opinion in this case is so well-researched that I cannot help but include large blocks of text, starting with its introduction to the subject:

The Internal Revenue Code allows a business to deduct from its taxable income a “reasonable allowance for salaries or other compensation for personal services actually rendered,”[or] “payments purely for services.” Occasionally the Internal Revenue Service challenges the deduction of a corporate salary on the ground that it’s really a dividend. A dividend, like salary, is taxable to the recipient, but unlike salary is not deductible from the corporation’s taxable income. So by treating a dividend as salary, a corporation can reduce its income tax liability without increasing the income tax of the recipient. . . As a result of a change in law in 2003, dividends are now taxed at a lower maximum rate than salaries—15 percent, versus 35 percent for salary. 26 U.S.C. § 1(h)(11). This makes the tradeoff more complex; although the corporation avoids tax by treating the dividend as a salary, which is deductible, the employee pays a higher tax. But depending on its tax bracket, the corporation may still save more in tax than the employee pays, and in that event, if the employee owns stock in the corporation, he may, depending on how much of the stock he owns, prefer dividends to be treated as salary. . . . Even before the change in the Internal Revenue Code, treating a dividend as salary was less likely to be attempted in a publicly held corporation, because if the CEO or other officers or employees receive dividends called salary beyond what they are entitled to by virtue of owning stock in the corporation, the other shareholders suffer. But in a closely held corporation, the owners might decide to take their dividends in the form of salary in order to beat the corporate income tax, and there would be no one to complain—except the Internal Revenue Service.

The usual case for forbidding the reclassification (for tax purposes) of dividends as salary is thus that “of a corporation having few shareholders, practically all of whom draw salaries,” Treas. Reg. § 1.162-7(b)(1), especially if the corporation does not pay dividends (as such) and some of the shareholders do no work for the corporation but merely cash a “salary” check. A difficult case—which is this case—is thus that of a corporation that pays a high salary to its CEO who works full time but is also the controlling shareholder. The Treasury regulation defines a “reasonable” salary as the amount that “would ordinarily be paid for like services by like enterprises under like circumstances,” § 1.162-7(b)(3), but that is not an operational standard. No two enterprises are alike and no two chief executive officers are alike, and anyway the comparison should be between the total compensation package of the CEOs being compared, and that requires consideration of deferred compensation, including severance packages, the amount of risk in the executives’ compensation, and perks.

Courts have attempted to operationalize the Treasury’s standard by considering multiple factors that relate to optimal compensation. [Citations omitted.] We reviewed a number of these attempts in Exacto Spring Corp. v. Commissioner, 196 F.3d 833 (7th Cir.1999), and concluded that they were too vague, and too difficult to operationalize, to be of much utility. Multifactor tests with no weight assigned to any factor are bad enough from the standpoint of providing an objective basis for a judicial decision [citations omitted]; multifactor tests when none of the factors is concrete are worse, and that is the character of most of the multifactor tests of excessive compensation. . . . All businesses are different, all CEOs are different, and all compensation packages for CEOs are different.

In Exacto, in an effort to bring a modicum of objectivity to the determination of whether a corporate owner/employee’s compensation is “reasonable,” we created the presumption that “when . . . the investors in his company are obtaining a far higher return than they had any reason to expect, [the owner/employee’s] salary is presumptively reasonable.” But we added that the presumption could be rebutted by evidence that the company’s success was the result of extraneous factors, such as an unexpected discovery of oil under the company’s land, or that the company intended to pay the owner/employee a disguised dividend rather than salary. 196 F.3d at 839.

The strongest ground for rebuttal, which brings us back to the basic purpose of disallowing “unreasonable” compensation, is that the employee does no work for the corporation; he is merely a shareholder. [Citations omitted.] Comparison with the compensation of executives of other companies can be helpful if—but it is a big if—the comparison takes into account the details of the compensation package of each of the compared executives, and not just the bottom-line salary. This qualification will turn out to be critical in this case.

Having explained the context of this case, the Circuit Court next explained why the Tax Court’s analysis was wrong, especially its comparison of John Menard’s salary to the salaries earned by the Home Depot and Lowe’s CEOs in that year. The appellate court first rejected the notion that the taxpayer’s $17 million bonus, which was equal to 5% of the company’s net income before taxes, was more likely to be a dividend than salary because it was paid at year’s end; was approved by a board that the CEO controlled without outside directors; must be returned if the IRS should disallow the company’s tax deduction as salary; and exceeded the salaries earned by the CEOs of publicly-traded competitors (Home Depot and Lowe’s). The appellate court noted that the managers of privately-held companies often face greater risk than public companies, warranting greater reward for success:

Of particular importance to this case is the amount of risk in the compensation structure. Risk in corporate compensation is significant in two respects. First, most people are risk averse, and the scholarly literature on corporate compensation suggests that risk aversion is actually an obstacle to efficient corporate management because managers tend to be more risk averse than shareholders. Shareholders can diversify the risk of a particular company by owning a diversified portfolio, but a manager tends to have most of his financial, reputational, and “specific human” capital tied up in his job. [Citations omitted.] So the riskier the compensation structure, other things being equal, the higher the executive’s salary must be to compensate him for bearing the additional risk.

That is not a critical consideration in this case because, as we said, management and ownership in Menards are not divorced. But a second significance of risk in a compensation structure is fully applicable to this case. A risky compensation structure implies that the executive’s salary is likely to vary substantially from year to year—high when the company has a good year, low when it has a bad one. Mr. Menard’s average annual income may thus have been considerably less than $20 million—a possibility the Tax Court ignored. Had the corporation lost money in 1998, Menard’s total compensation would have been only $157,500—less than the salary of a federal judge—even if the loss had not been his fault. The 5 percent bonus plan was in effect for a quarter of a century before the IRS pounced; was it just waiting for Menard to have such a great year that the IRS would
have a great-looking case?

The appellate court also noted that the Tax Court had not considered the total compensation packages of the CEOs from the public companies, such as equity compensation, severance packages, retirement plans, and perks. The appellate court noted that the CEO of Home Depot, whose salary was used as a benchmark, actually earned $124 million over six years, and a $210 million severance package when he was forced out. The Court of Appeals also noted that the Tax Court had not considered the salaries of other senior managers, both of Menards and of the benchmark public companies, which may have indicated that this CEO was more productive and delegated less than average. The Court observed that John Menard worked 14 to 16 hours per day, six to seven days per week.

The Seventh Circuit adopted a skeptical, even sarcastic, tone toward the Tax Court’s remark that the owner of a business has no need for incentive compensation because ownership is incentive enough. The Court of Appeals held that owners should not be treated differently from other managers.

Having concluded that John Menard’s $20 million salary was not excessive, the Court of Appeals reversed.

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