Tag: executive compensation

Some Facts on Executive Compensation

All too often policy debates regarding executive compensation appear driven more by populist politics than any real basis in fact.   In order to add some light to this debate, two professors at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Gian Luca Clementi and Thomas Cooley, recently released a working paper, offering their findings on trends in executive compensation, many of which I found surprising.

First off, Professors Clementi and Cooley measure executive compensation more broadly than just salary, perks and bonuses.  They include annual change in value of own company stock and option holdings, as well as the value of own company stock sales and newly awarded securities.  This broader measure is intended to give a fuller picture of how closely an executive’s wealth is tied to the performance of their firm.   Not too surprising given this broader measure, the professors find that salary and bonuses are actually a small faction of overall compensation.  Stock holdings, awards and options are far larger shares of compensation.

Among their other findings:  A $1,000 increase in shareholder wealth is associated with about a $35 rise in CEO wealth.  One factor behind this relationship is the relatively high own company stock holdings of CEOs.  For 2006, about a fourth of CEOs held more than 1% of their company’s stock, while 10% held more than 5%.

A surprisingly finding was that it was quite common for CEOs to actually see negative compensation.  For instance in 2002, the professors find that 40% of CEOs lost money, driven many by their own company stock and option losses.  These are just a few of the paper’s findings.  Hopefully this research, and others, will provide a more factual basis for debates surrounding executive compensation.

Executive Comp Restrictions Could End Up Costing the Taxpayer

The Obama administration’s announcement this week on cash compensation for those seven institutions receiving “extraordinary assistance” has generated the all-too-predictable responses. Either you think executives at the entities are bad and greedy and should be punished, or you believe this is just the first step in an all-out class war.  Sadly the real victim in all these efforts has been, and continues to be, the taxpayer.

Now that the taxpayer is the most significant shareholder in these companies, the top priority for Washington, as representative of the taxpayer, should be to see these companies return to profitability.  Quite simply, if these companies are not profitable, that loss will fall on the taxpayer, as shareholder.

And of course, without the ability to retain talent, it is all the more likely that these companies will not maintain profitability.  I suspect the competitors of these seven are already eyeing their best talent.  And let’s not kid ourselves, leaving these companies stocked with mediocre employees will not help taxpayers get their money back. 

In trying to punish the bailed-out  companies, we are also punishing ourselves.  This is one of the very reasons we should never have bailed them out in the first place:  once we are the owners, there fate and ours are linked.

The Czar Will Rule

President Obama’s real czar, “pay czar” Ken Feinberg, who has real power, brushes aside such claims even as he prepares to issue his Gosplan-style edicts on future and even past pay agreements:

The Obama administration’s pay czar says negotiations over executive compensation with the seven companies that received the biggest federal bailouts have been “a consensual process’’ - not a matter of forcing decisions on them.

“I’m hoping I won’t be required to simply make a determination over company objections,’’ veteran Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg told the Chicago Bar Association in a speech.

But note: he’s “hoping” he won’t have to impose his own view. He’s hoping the companies will accede to his power without complaining. But the fact remains, he doesn’t have to get their consent. He “has sole discretion to set compensation for the top 25 employees of each of those companies,” and his decisions “won’t be subject to appeal.” Or, as Feinberg himself puts it,

The statute provides these guideposts, but the statute ultimately says I have discretion to decide what it is that these people should make and that my determination will be final. The officials can’t run to the Secretary of Treasury. The officials can’t run to the court house or a local court. My decision is final on those individuals.

That’s power. So where is Doonesbury? We need him to update his classic 1970s “energy czar” strips.

Doonesbury

The Pay Czar at Work

Mark Calabria notes how the form of salary scheme at financial institutions played no apparent role in sparking the financial crisis.  But that hasn’t stopped the federal pay czar from boasting about his power, even to regulate compensation set before he took office.

Reports the Martha’s Vineyard Times:

Speaking to a packed house in West Tisbury Sunday night, Kenneth Feinberg rejected the title of “compensation czar,” but he also said said his broad and “binding” authority over executive compensation includes not only the ability to trim 2009 compensation for some top executives but to change pay plans for second tier executives as well.

In addition, Mr. Feinberg said he has the authority to “claw back” money already paid to executives in the seven companies whose pay plans he will review.

And, he said that if companies had signed valid contractual pay agreements before February 11 this year, the legislation creating his “special master” office allowed him to ask that those contracts be renegotiated. If such a request were not honored, Mr. Feinberg explained that he could adjust pay in subsequent years to recapture overpayments that were legally beyond his reach in 2009.

This isn’t the first time that federal money has come with onerous conditions, of course.  But it provides yet another illustration of the perniciousness of today’s bail-out economy.

Washington Push on Executive Pay Has Unintended Consequences

Regulators at the SEC and politicians on Capitol Hill seem to have short memories when it comes to executive compensation.  When the SEC years ago decided to make the compensation of top executives public information, it had the all too predictable result of actually increasing average compensation levels.  Once a top CEO knew what other CEOs were making, he could argue for a pay hike based upon being “underpaid”.  Of course regulators were “shocked” by the resulting “race to the top.” 

Similarly Congress was shocked when after deciding to heavily tax salaries over $1 million, that companies shifted away from direct cash pay and toward options and increased bonuses in the form of shares. 

And soon Washington will also pretend to be shocked and outraged that the current anger over Wall Street bonuses is leading firms to reduce bonuses, but increase base pay.  As illustrated in today’s Wall Street Journal, companies like Morgan Stanley have increased their base pay from $300,000 to $400,000.  Even Citibank, essentially a ward of the US government, is increasing its base pay to $300,000 for employees that were previously eligible for bonuses.

The real harm in this is not that Wall Street employees are getting paid more in cash, but that less of their compensation will be tied to their performance, and the performance of their firm.  A flat salary, regardless of how hard you work, will encourage shirking. Perhaps even worse, is that more upfront cash, and less long-term stock options, will shift Wall Street’s focus even more toward today, rather than tomorrow.  So much for Washington fixing the short term focus of Wall Street, but then one shouldn’t be too surprised given the even more short term focus of Washington.