Commentary

Washington’s Plans May Result in Even Higher Executive Pay

In 1993, Congress intervened in corporate compensation and messed things up. Now it’s the White House’s turn.

Executive pay has emerged, once again, as a major issue in Washington. This week Treasury and the Federal Reserve announced new regulations designed to oversee and limit executive pay at thousands of financial institutions. This is deeply ironic, because today’s pay woes are the direct result of prior government intervention.

In 1993, Congress decided it would use the tax code to “improve” (i.e., reduce) executive compensation in publicly traded companies. Its vehicle was the Budget Reconciliation Act, a key provision of which became Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Noting that executive compensation levels had received negative “scrutiny and criticism” from the public, the new law targeted what it called “excessive employee remuneration.” It did so by limiting the ability of public companies to deduct executive compensation for its top employees unless the compensation was paid out in a form that Congress found acceptable. Salary was bad. Stock options were tax favored.

History teaches that the most profound consequences of new compensation regulation will be unintended.”

Specifically, corporations were barred by law from deducting as a normal business expense any salary payments of over $1 million. Stock options, however, qualified for the corporate tax deduction without limitation. Much maligned today, stock options then were said to be “performance based” and therefore exempt from the new tax rules.

The new tax law immediately led to a tectonic shift in the way CEOs and other top U.S. executives were paid. Stock and stock options became the dominant feature of executive compensation packages.

The impetus for changing the executive compensation laws back then was exactly the same as it is today. Politicians wanted pay lower and wanted to change the executive compensation model to “fix” the risk-taking proclivities of top managers.

In 1992, the government thought that managers were too risk averse. Stock options were seen as the magic bullet for making managers act more aggressively in the shareholders’ interests. Today, many in Congress are blaming U.S. executives for causing the financial crisis precisely by engaging in “excessive” risk-taking. What they fail to mention is that it was Congress’s own tinkering with the tax code that led to the very compensation packages that incentivized the risk-taking.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke asserted this week that “compensation practices at some banking organizations have led to misaligned incentives and excessive risk-taking, contributing to bank losses and financial instability.” Mr. Bernanke promised that the government “is working to ensure that compensation packages appropriately tie rewards to longer-term performance and do not create undue risk for the firm or the financial system.”

Other government interference has made the executive compensation problem even worse. A provision in the 1992 tax law required that executives meet certain “objective” performance measures in order to qualify for incentive-based (tax deductible) pay. In the scramble to come up with objective metrics on which to base executive pay, cottage industry “executive compensation consultants” emerged as the most important architects of executive compensation plans.

The compensation consultants promised to design pay programs that did things like “drive the right behaviors” by corporate management, which meant assuming more risk to maximize shareholder value. Public companies hired droves of consultants to analyze pay schemes and design pay packages that created incentives to maximize share prices. Consultants came to be viewed as essential to boards of directors that wanted to implement appropriate—and tax qualified—performance measures.

The most successful consultants are those who can justify the biggest salary increases for the top executives of the companies that hired them. Researchers at the University of Southern California recently found that the median CEO compensation is $1.5 million in companies not using executive compensation consultants, $3 million in companies that purchase general survey data from such consultants but do not directly retain them, and $4.2 million in companies that retain consultants.

Some companies use multiple consultants. The USC study found that the more consultants a company hires, the more it pays its top executives. About one-quarter of Fortune 250 companies hire multiple compensation consultants.

Activist investor Carl Icahn summed the situation up well when he recently observed on his Web site that “the use of these compensation consultants, gives both boards and CEOs the appearance of legitimacy for their decisions to award massive pay packages to lackluster CEOs, making it appear that these decisions are objective and scientific, which they absolutely are not.”

The government also has tried to regulate executive compensation by requiring greater disclosure of the details of compensation plans. Perversely, this too has contributed to an increase in executive pay.

How so? No self-respecting board of directors is willing to admit that their company’s CEO is below average. So anytime the new disclosures indicate that an executive’s pay is below average in any way, a pay increase is ordered.

Since the early 1990s, government regulation of executive compensation has encouraged greater share-price volatility and risk-taking by U.S. corporate executives and led directly to higher, rather than lower, levels of executive compensation. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is now seeking an even greater role in overseeing and regulating executive pay.

In June, Gene Sperling, a top aid to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, told the House Committee on Financial Services that “our goal is to help ensure that there is a much closer alignment between compensation, sound risk management and long-term value creation for firms and the economy as a whole.”

This is just what the regulators told us back in 1992. Current proposals will no doubt result in even higher percentages of executive compensation coming from stock and option schemes rather than from salaries. History teaches that the most profound consequences of new compensation regulation will be unintended. It also teaches that as bad as private ordering may have worked in getting executive compensation right, the results of central planning have been even worse.

Jonathan R. Macey is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, a law professor at Yale, and a member of the Task Force on Property Rights at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.