Saturday, September 19, 2009

Compensation games

Until the financial crisis, most people, myself included, did not make distinctions between different kinds of companies when it came to executive compensation. It was just one big problem, revolving primarily around the idea that there was something fundamentally wrong about executives taking home giant, multimillion dollar pay packages for mediocre performance or even outright failure — something, alas, that happens with annoying regularity in corporate America.

But if the near collapse of the financial system has taught us anything, it is that there should be a distinction. On the one hand, there are companies whose executives can make awful mistakes, even driving their corporations into bankruptcy, but whose actions have little or no effect on the rest of us. Most companies fall under this category.

And then there are those handful of companies — the too-big-to-fail banks and other large financial institutions that pose systemic risk — whose failure can wreak devastating havoc on the economy. For these latter companies, getting compensation right isn't just a matter of fairness or improved corporate governance. It turns out to be critically important if we are to prevent a repeat of the calamity that has befallen us. But as difficult as it has been to overhaul executive compensation overall, it is going to be even more difficult to take the tougher measures that need to be taken with the banking system.

Let's look first at the broader issue. In truth, for the first time in my memory, I think there is a decent chance that the compensation games will come to an end — though it won't be by doing anything so radical as trying to cap pay, something that simply doesn't work. (Mr. Geithner was right about that.)

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