By James Kwak
Over on Twitter, Matt O’Brien wrote:
That inspired me to take a look at the article O’Brien referred to: a column by Steven Davidoff asking why JPMorgan gets pilloried for giving CEO Jamie Dimon $20 million while Google can give Chairman Eric Schmidt $106 million without incurring the wrath of the public.
I went into it thinking I would agree with O’Brien—that there is something worse about lavish Wall Street pay packages than lavish Silicon Valley pay packages. Part of that was home team bias: I spent most of my business career working for companies based in Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Menlo Park, San Mateo, and Foster City (that’s two companies and five office moves). But I ended up mainly agreeing with Davidoff.
I think O’Brien is right on the narrow question of why people are mad: JPMorgan has done a lot of bad things in recent years, while Google’s role in the world is more ambiguous. But at the end of the day, voting the chairman of the board enough money to buy a Gulfstream 650 and an entourage of 550s is not a good use of shareholder money. And it’s shockingly tone-deaf in this age of rising inequality and cuts to food stamps. That’s the topic of my latest Atlantic column.
By James Kwak
I finally bit the bullet and read “In Defense of the CEO,” Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan’s article on the cover of the “Review” section of Saturday’s WSJ. The inside continuation page is headlined “When CEOs Are Worth a Fortune.” In fact, I read it twice. But nowhere could I find any evidence or even an argument that any CEOs are worth a fortune—just a lot of implying, assuming, and asserting that they are.
By James Kwak
The indefatigable Lucian Bebchuk has written another empirical paper (Dealbook summary), this time with Alma Cohen and Charles Wang, on the impact of golden parachutes (agreements that pay off CEOs generously in case of acquisition by another company) on shareholder value.
Looking just at the question of whether a company is acquired and for how much, they find out that golden parachutes work about how you would expect. Companies whose CEOs have golden parachutes are more likely to get acquisition offers and are more likely to be acquired, presumably because their CEOs are les likely to contest takeovers. On the other hand, these companies tend to sell for lower acquisition premiums, again because their CEOs are more likely to be happy to be bought out.
“So far, so good,” Bebchuk writes. But the problem is that when you take a longer view, golden parachutes appear to be bad for shareholder value. Companies that adopt golden parachutes have lower risk-adjusted stock returns than their peers—despite the fact that they are more likely to be acquired. Some other factor is outweighing the positive effect (for the stock price) of more frequent takeovers.
Bebchuk proposes one explanation: Golden parachutes make being acquired relatively painless to CEOs. Therefore, they are less afraid of being acquired; and, therefore, they are less concerned about maximizing shareholder value in the first place.
Here’s another possibility: Companies are more likely to grant golden parachutes to their CEOs if they have: (a) CEOs who care more about maximizing their personal wealth than about their companies; (b) boards who are more concerned about doing favors for the CEO than about doing what’s right for the company; or (c) both. Those are not the kinds of companies you want to be investing in, since they’re likely to screw up all sorts of other things in addition to their executive compensation policies.
By James Kwak
From today’s WSJ:
“At J.P. Morgan, the biggest U.S. bank by assets, directors are considering lower 2012 bonuses for Chief Executive James Dimon and other top executives in the wake of a multibillion-dollar trading disaster, said people close to the discussions. But they also are grappling with the question of how to do that without drastically reducing the executives’ take-home pay.”
Huh? Isn’t reducing their take-home pay the point?
By James Kwak
Once upon a time, the story goes, corporate America was fat and happy. Top executives worked in palatial office suites bedecked with flowers, flew everywhere in private jets, and ate every meal at the Four Seasons or Le Bernardin.
Then there was the shareholder value revolution. Michael Jensen and the rest of the Chicago School efficient-market legions showed that shareholder value was the only thing that mattered and stock prices were the only measure of shareholder value. Activist investors demanded an end to executive perks and ushered in the era of pay for performance, in which executives are paid in stock options, so they only make (a lot of) money if shareholders make money. Congress event went along by capping the tax-deductible amount of executives’ base pay, which helped along the shift to stock-based compensation.
By James Kwak
That picture is average total annual compensation for top-five named executive officers at U.S. public companies from 2008 to 2010. (It’s from a blog post by Carol Bowie of MSCI, which used to be called Morgan Stanley Capital International.) Over those two years, total annual compensation increased by 37% for all companies and by 54% for companies in the S&P 500. Basically, while bonuses and severance packages have fallen or grown slowly, that effect has been swamped by much bigger stock and option packages. Which is evidence that if you try to rein in some of the more egregious aspects of executive compensation, the executives, their friends on the compensation committee, and their hired guns at the compensation consulting firms will figure out ways to keep the party going.
It’s possible that 2008 was a low year for executive compensation because of the financial crisis and recession, so this is just rapid growth from a low base. But check this out:
A December 2011 survey by pay consultant Towers Watson of 265 mid-size and large organizations found 61 percent expect their annual bonus pools for 2011 “to be as large or larger than those for 2010,” while 58 percent of respondents expect to fund their annual incentive plans “at or above target levels based on their companies’ year-to-date performance.” Moreover, 48 percent of those surveyed expect long-term incentive plans that are tied to explicit performance conditions “to be funded at or above target levels based on year-to-date performance.”
Critically, 61 percent of respondent in the Towers survey said they believe their total shareholder return will decline or remain flat.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg (Simon’s commentary here), President Obama compared bank CEOs to athletes–a analogy favored by Goldman director Bill George, among others. However, Obama got the analogy right:
“The president, speaking in an interview, said in response to a question that while $17 million is ‘an extraordinary amount of money’ for Main Street, ‘there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I’m shocked by that as well.'”
That is, Obama is saying that some bankers are overpaid, just like some athletes are overpaid. Maybe he read my earlier post?