Posts filed under “Wages & Income”

American Pastime: OverPaying CEOs

There is a longish Sunday NYT article on CEO pay that I plan on reading. But before I get to it, I wanted to share some longstanding thoughts of my own on exec compensation.

While there was a temporary drop in exec comp caused by the market crash, we still have structural compensation issues that need to be addressed. For too long, we have been vastly overpaying CEOs of public firms for mediocre performance . Even worse, we have institutionalized this trend in recent decades. The result has been a massive transfer of wealth from shareholders to corporate execs.

In Europe, pay scales have been increasing modestly — but nowhere near the level of shameless theft here in the States.

Some 50 years ago, the highest paid executive (usually the CEO) made 30 times what the firm’s lowest paid employee did. This has changed over time, shifting upward in the 1980s. It has radically shifted the hi/lo pay ratio at American companies. Since 1999, as the average US paycheck has remained flat, C-level execs compensation has exploded. Just before the credit crisis crushed stock prices, the highest to lowest ratio was near 400 to 1.

Executives of public companies  have been making a killing. Even worse, its for mediocre performance.

Roger Lowenstein details a rogues gallery of over paid execs in 2004′s Origins of the Crash. Back in 1991, Tony O’Reilly, CEO of Heinz, got a package worth the then astounding sum of $71 million dollars. Ed Nardelli of Home Depot grabbed a $210 million severance package for essentially losing market share to Lowes. More recently, others — especially in the financial sector — got paid $100s of millions of dollars for essentially destroying their own firms.

Huge stock option grants create perverse incentives. GE’s Jack Welch pocketed over $400 million dollars in salary, bonuses, and options. Lowenstein argued in his book that Welch essentially managed the earnings with very creative accounting and the help of GE Capital’s impenetrable financial black box. The credit crisis caused the collapse of GE’s earnings management, confirming Lowenstein’s thesis of earnings management. Its hard to avoid his conclusion that the greatest industrial CEO in recent American history was little more than a clever accounting cheat.

How does this happen? How are shareholders hoodwinked so thoroughly? I can describe the legal corporate theft by insiders in 5 simple steps. The scam goes something like this:

Five Steps to Shareholder Wealth Transfer

1. The Board of Directors, usually cronies of the CEO (often hand picked by him) forms a compensation committee. To appear “objective,” the committee hires an outside compensation consultant.

2. The compensation consultants are themselves well paid whores, who rather than turning tricks outside the Holland tunnel, offer up absurdly generous comp package. They deliver what they are paid to: They provide cover for the boards to make an otherwise indefensible giveaway of shareholder monies in the form of cash and stock options. It is typically called “Pay for Performance,” but that is a horrific misnomer, as we see in step #3.  The comp committee approves the consultants’ nonsense, forwards it to the Board, who rubber stamps it.

3. Here’s where things get interesting: If the stock price rallies, the exec can exercise and cash out, risk free. If the stock price falls, the exec requests a new round of options — or even easier, asks for a repricing of the old ones.

4. After the options are repriced, the exec simply waits. Whether the market rallies or falls . . . you simply go back to step three. Repeat until stock options are in the money. There is no risk or outlay of cash on the part of execs.

5. True “performance” is not a factor. Stock prices can rally for a vast range of reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with management or CEO performance. The market can rally, a sector can come into favor, or even when the Fed can cut rates.

This is not pay for performance, it is pay for stock price volatility.

Actual performance would look at factors such as peer profitability, sector performance, SPX index gains. Bonus payments and stock option exercise should be for gains OVER AND ABOVE these factors — but sadly, rarely if ever are.

There are numerous enablers of this terrible comp system: Crony boards rubber stamp what turns out to be outsized — and oft guaranteed — pay packages for under-performance. An entire class of consultants somehow blesses these absurdities, giving the boards cover for their theft of shareholders. Third, large mutual funds remain mute, failing to fulfill their obligations as stewards of their investors’ stock shares. Instead, their silence is bought with 401k business and syndicate shares (IPOs, secondaries).

Solutions are as simple as they are unlikely: Require shareholder approval of exec comp plans, mandate public disclosure of consultant comp plans (they are embarrassingly ridiculous), and last, cleave the mutual fund asset management business from the rest of the companies. Impose a fiduciary obligation on mutual funds to investigate all Board nominees and vote their shares on behalf of S/Hs.

Just don’t hold your breath waiting for credible compensation reform to take place . . .


See also:
Bargain Rates for a C.E.O.?
NYT, April 2, 2010

Few Fled Companies Constrained by Pay Limits
NYT, March 22, 2010

Category: Really, really bad calls, Wages & Income

Top 10 Hedge Fund Managers 2009 Salary

Here are the top 10 managers for 2009 in terms of net compensation. The majority  of this comp is based on performance fees, plus investment returns on their own money. The top 25 earners were paid a collective $25.3 billion. The lowest earner on the list earned a puny $350 million — a shanda! —…Read More

Category: Hedge Funds, Wages & Income

Payroll Withholding Taxes Surge in March

Matt Trivisonno shares with us some of the research he does at Daily Jobs Update regarding payroll withholding taxes. He notes that in March, there has been a very strong surge in withholding taxes. The amount is roughly equivalent to 300,000 new workers being paid $30,000 salaries.  Matt presume many of these jobs are Census…Read More

Category: Taxes and Policy, Wages & Income

Overpaid Execs Over-Emphasized Comp

Here are the key data points: • The average CASH payout for the top 25 execs at the 5 companies that were bailed out by Uncle Sam — AIG, Chrysler, GM, GMAC and Chrysler Credit — has been cut in half since 2008 to $469,777. • For the top earners at those companies, pay is…Read More

Category: Bailouts, Wages & Income

Taibbi: “The Best 18 Months of Grifting This Country Has Ever Seen”

I have a few quotes in Matt Taibbi’s no holds barred look at Wall Street’s profits and bonus culture. It is classic Taibbi, full of righteous indignation and fury over the bailed out banks quick transformation from near bankruptcy to record profits. He details 7 scams the various TARP recipients have pulled. Here’s a taste…Read More

Category: Bailouts, Corporate Management, Wages & Income

Banking Compensation Around the World

This chart, from a Reuters’ analysis of pay at the 18 biggest banks by market value, illustrates the massive differences in pay among the CEOs of the world’s top banks. The compensation of the CEOs of the largest U.S. banks towers above what’s paid to banking chiefs in other parts of the world. > Source:…Read More

Category: Corporate Management, Wages & Income

American Idol, Goldman Sachs Edition

Ever wonder why Goldman execs don’t speak to mere mortals? The answer was hidden in a tongue-in-cheek Michael Lewis Bloomberg column, which he slipped this by everyone late night Friday. Its an internal memo to Lloyd Bankfein, chock full of suggestions to improve GS’ public image. This one was my favorite: Each year, for example,…Read More

Category: Corporate Management, Humor, Wages & Income

Hours of Labor Needed to Buy SPX, CRB, Gold

I find these 3 charts, courtesy of Ron Griess of The Chart Store, fascinating. They contextualize market gains, dollar weakness and inflation and deflation relative to various markets: click for larger charts S&P500 Commodities Gold

Category: Commodities, Inflation, Investing, Wages & Income

Wages of Failure: Exec Comp at Bear, Lehman 2000-08

I stumbled across a fascinating pierce of research (via a reader) regarding misaligned pay incentives Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers: “The standard narrative of the meltdown of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers assumes that the wealth of the top executives of these firms was largely wiped out along with their firms. In the ongoing debate…Read More

Category: Bailout Nation, Bailouts, Corporate Management, Wages & Income

A Long Look at Banker Compensation

Today’s NYT magazine has a long, well done interesting piece on Kenneth Feinberg, the government’s special master for executive compensation, titled What’s a Bailed-Out Banker Really Worth?. Anytime I read a discussion on compensation, bonuses, and bailouts, I am astonished as to how much of the general discontent over these issues traces back to the…Read More

Category: Bailouts, Corporate Management, Wages & Income