The Wall Street Journal reports that the pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, is going to cut executive comp at 7 TARP recipients for the 25 most highly paid employees.
Does this really mean anything? The press will noise it up as significant (and some outlets will no doubt finger wag at this “interference”) but the short answer is no.
First, recall Feinberg’s hollow mandate. He is limited to only TARP recipients, not the beneficiaries of other forms of government largesse. And as anyone who has an operating brain cell knows, the number of firms on the dole and the degree of subsidies is much greater than the TARP. Have a look at the Fed’s balance sheet for a reality check. Even Larry Summers said,
There is no financial institution that exists today that is not the direct or indirect beneficiary of trillions of dollars of taxpayer support for the financial system.
So let us look at the list of companies affected. AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup, General Motors Co., GMAC Inc., Chrysler Group LLC and Chrysler Financial. AIG is effectively nationalized but is allowed to operate as a private company, a simply bizarre state of affairs. Pay cuts falls well short of the oversight the government should be exercising (any private owner with that big of a stake would have thrown out the board and installed new management, for starters, and be all over AIG like a cheap suit). So this is an overdue, token measure to appease the public over the AIG retention bonuses that were also extended to clearly non-essential support staff, which is a clear tipoff that they were also extended to non-essential management.
Four of the companies are auto bailout related, so we can exclude them as far as implications for big financial firms are concerned.
Citigroup is an obvious ward of the state too, and he AIG argument applies there. The government should have more control there too, which does NOT mean micromanagement. When the Swedish nationalized their banks, they replaced management and set strict goals and targets, but did not interfere in operations. Bank of America may look like a borderline case, but it would be dead now had it not gotten emergency infusions. Given its credit card losses, Merrill, and Countrywide (for starters) combined with the sudden exit of Ken Lewis, it may well be in worse shape than is now perceived.
The point is that the collection of these scalps will do nothing to comp levels ex these firms. The companies that also enjoy implicit government guarantees are free to do the “heads I win, tails you lose” game of privatized gains and socialized losses. And Ken Lewis is the poster child of why these measures are completely meaningless. He sacrificed his 2009 pay, but will still collect $125 million when he departs Bank of America.
If the government is going to backstop the industry (and this isn’t an “if” anymore), it needs to limit those firm’s activities to what is socially valuable and regulate them heavily to contain risk taking. As we have said, reining in executive pay (and note there is no will to do that anyhow) is not an effective approach. Those employees who don’t like that are free to decamp and raise money in ways that do not involve the regulated firms in any way, shape, or form, save perhaps counterparty exposures on very safe, highly liquid instruments.