How do you stamp out Wall Street greed? Maybe by charging for it

01/08/2010 12:07 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

Hmmm, maybe, finally, a good idea on how to curb the worst excesses of Wall Street pay.

Regulators at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FIDC), the Financial Times reports, are talking about linking the amount that banks have to pay into the fund that provides government insurance to bank depositors with risky pay policies at banks. The more that a pay structure encourages short-term risk taking—like that which led to and then deepened the U.S. mortgage and mortgage-backed securities bust—the more a bank would have to pay into the fund.

For example, a pay policy that gave big cash bonuses to bank executives on the basis of one-year performance targets would lead to a higher FDIC fee because that kind of policy rewards executives for taking short-term risks even if the long-term result (say, in two or three years) is a disastr. A pay policy that paid out bonuses in stock that vested over time might be deemed neutral to the bank’s FDIC fee payment—since it does at least make a bonus payout depend on the longer-term performance of the stock. And a pay policy with claw-back provisions that lets a bank take back bonuses if long-term performance falls below short-term results might get a discount on fees paid to the FDIC.

This idea would get around what strike me as the three main drawbacks of the excessive-pay rules that I’ve seen so far.

First, it would get around the greed problem. I’m as much in favor of punishing Wall Street greed as the next guy or gal, but I do recognize that there’s a problem in defining greed. One person’s greed is another person’s (especially if they work on Wall Street) justified compensation. You may say you know greed when you see it, but clearly Wall Street in particular and corporate boards in general don’t. And what counts as greed in your home town almost certainly doesn’t meet the definition as understood by most corporate boards.

Second, by focusing on the broad risk-encouraging score of a pay policy, the idea avoids the kind of micro-management that any greed-avoidance rule requires. If corporate boards can’t recognize greed, as you and I might define it, and if the “outside experts” they hire to advise them on compensation actually serve to justify outrageous compensation (for a hefty fee), then the only way to clamp down on greed is to set up a “Pay Czar” or a “Citizens board” to rule on every CEO and upper level executive pay package. Talk about a process that will slow hiring to a crawl and that’s likely to produce arbitrary and widely divergent results. No thanks.

Third, any greed-avoidance system focuses on individual pay packages—did CEO A get offered too much money—rather than on the damage that a company’s pay policy does to shareholders. By putting an easily reported figure on the effects of a company’s policy on FDIC fees and hence on corporate profits, this idea would give shareholders an easy to understand tool for judging corporate governance and the costs of poor governance.

The FDIC policy is in the early discussion stages, the Financial Times reports, but it is on the agenda for a Tuesday meeting of the FDIC board.

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