There's mounting talk on Capitol
Hill that a Wall Street bailout will include some limits on executive
compensation, as well as contradictory reports about whether a deal on
controlling executive pay has already been reached.
Four days ago, such a move seemed very unlikely. But the pushback from
Congress -- from both Democrats and Republicans -- has been
surprisingly robust, thanks in considerable part to a surge of outrage
from the public.
Will restrictions on CEO pay just be a symbolic retribution, as some have charged?
The answer is, it depends.
Meaningful limits not just on CEO pay, but also on the Wall Street
bonus culture, could significantly affect the way the financial sector
does business. Some CEO pay proposals, by contrast, would extract a
pound of flesh from some executives but have little impact on incentive
There are at least five reasons why it is important to address executive compensation as part of the bailout legislation.
First, there should be some penalty for executives who led their
companies -- and the global financial system -- to the brink of ruin.
You shouldn't be rewarded for failure. And while reducing pay packages
to seven digits may feel really nasty given Wall Street's culture of
preposterous excess, in the real world, a couple million bucks is still
a lot of money to make in a year.
Second, if the public is going to subsidize Wall Street to the tune of
hundreds of billions of dollars, the point is to keep the financial
system going -- not to keep Wall Street going the way it was. Funneling
public funds for exorbitant executive compensation would be a criminal
appropriation of public funds.
Third, the Wall Street salary structure has helped set the standard for
CEO pay across the economy, and helped establish a culture where
executives consider outlandish pay packages the norm. This culture, in
turn, has contributed to staggering wealth and income inequality, at
great cost to the nation. We need, it might be said, an end to the
culture of hyper-wealth.
Fourth, as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research
says, the bailout package must be, to some extent, "punitive." If the
financial firms and their executives do not have to give something up
for the bailout, then there's no disincentive to engage in unreasonably
risky behavior in the future. This is what is meant by "moral hazard."
If Wall Street says the financial system is on the brink of collapse,
and the government must step in with what may be the biggest taxpayer
bailout in history, says Baker, then Wall Street leaders have to show
they mean it. If they are not willing to cut their pay for a few years
to a couple of million dollars an annum, how serious do they really
think the problem is?
Finally, and most importantly, financial sector compensation systems
need to be changed so they don't incentivize risky, short-term behavior.
There are two ways to think about how the financial sector let itself
develop such a huge exposure to a transparently bubble housing market.
One is that the financial wizards actually believed all the hype they
were spreading. They believed new financial instruments eliminated
risk, or spread it so effectively that downside risks were minimal; and
they believed the idea that something had fundamentally changed in the
housing market, and skyrocketing home prices would never return to
Another way to think about it is: Wall Street players knew they were
speculating in a bubble economy. But the riches to be made while the
bubble was growing were extraordinary. No one could know for sure when
the bubble would pop. And Wall Street bonuses are paid on a yearly
basis. If your firm does well, and you did well for the firm, you get
an extravagant bonus. This is not an extra few thousand dollars to buy
fancy Christmas gifts. Wall Street bonuses
can be 10 or 20 times base salary, and commonly represent as much as
four fifths of employees' pay. In this context, it makes sense to take huge risks. The payoffs from benefiting from a bubble are dramatic, and there's no reward for staying out.
Both of these explanations may be true to some degree, but the
compensation incentives explanation is almost certainly a significant
part of the story.
Different ideas about how to limit executive pay would address the
multiple rationales for compensation reforms to varying degrees.
A two-year cap on executive salaries would help achieve the first four
objectives, but by itself wouldn't get to the crucial issue of
One idea in particular to be wary of is "say on pay" proposals,
which would afford shareholders the right to a non-binding vote on CEO
pay compensation packages. These proposals would go some way to address
the disconnect between executive and shareholder interests, reducing
the ability of top executives to rely on crony boards of directors and
conflicted compensation consultants to implement outrageous pay
packages. But while they might increase executive accountability to
shareholders, they wouldn't direct executives away from market-driven
short-term decision making. Shareholders tend to be forgiving of
outlandish salaries so long as they are making money, too, and -- worse
-- they actually tend to have more of a short-term mentality than the
executives. So "say on pay" is not a good way to address the multiple
executive compensation-related goals that should be met in the bailout
The ideal provisions on executive compensation would set tough limits
on top pay, but would also insist on long-term changes in the bonus
culture for executives and traders. Not only should bonuses be more
modest, they should be linked to long-term, not year-long, performance.
That would completely change the incentive to knowingly participate in
a financial bubble (or, more generously, take on excessive risk),
because you would know that the eventual popping of the bubble would
wipe out your bonus.
Four days ago, forcing Wall Street to change its incentive structure
seemed pie in the sky. Today, thanks to the public uproar, it seems
eminently achievable -- if Members of Congress seize the opportunity.
Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.