Blogs & Comment

Take back bankers’ bonuses

Finally, someone is going after bankers bonuses. Hurray, I say. Ive been pontificating on getting those bonuses back, so its nice to see some confirmation were not tilting at windmills.
Last week, as the New York Times reported, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo told the American International Group (AIG) board of directors to recover executive bonuses or face legal action. Specifically, they were asked to take back the $5-million cash bonus and $15-million golden parachute given to ex-CEO Martin Sullivan and $34 million in bonuses given to Joseph Cassano, the executive who headed the unit that pushed the company to the brink.
It seems to me the perpetrators of the financial mess shouldnt be able to keep their billions of dollars in bonuses while taxpayers fork over several hundred billions of dollars to clean up the mess they left behind. We can only hope, in the interests of restoring some semblance of justice, that more bonuses are clawed back across the financial sector. If you want the American public to buy into the bailout (and, indeed, the idea the system works), it helps to show those at the top are sacrificing too.
But there is more to it than sending a message to the public. Taking back the bonuses is also one way to address the moral hazard problem that has plagued U.S. economic policy for decades and contributed to, if not caused, crises like the present. If executives know their reckless behavior is more certain not to not to be rewarded, they might be less inclined to let it run lose. For more on this, see the Clawback the bankers bonuses.
We might also add, its about time to tackle the built-in incentive within Corporate America for senior executives to take aggressive risks becauseboards hand out bonuses to executives regardless of their performance. There is no downside to being a CEO in the U.S they still get nice bonuses and parachutes no matter how much they messed up. Isnt it odd, for example, Lehman Bros. handed out $5.7 billion in bonusesthe year before going under?
Douglas McIntyre of the 24/7 Wall Street blogdisagrees with taking back bonuses. He thinks when an executive gets a bonus, he should be able to keep it, no matter what happened to the company later. Cuomo is undermining, he says, the rights of public company boards to use their own judgments on how to handle pay packages for their own senior managers.
Huh? Arent boards of directors supposed to represent the interest of shareholders? What signal are they sending if they let the incompetent and high-rolling executives keep multimillion-dollar bonuses and golden parachutes? Isn’t it: Hey, executives, its OK to be incompetent/riverboat gamblers and decimate shareholder equity?
Actually, if the AIG board was truly independent, what was it doing sanctioning bonuses unconnected to an executives performance the kind, as McIntyre says, they “should be able to keep, no matter what happened to the company later. Of course, AIG is not unique in this way: its systemic within Corporate America. And now is a good time to put a stop to it
The directors at AIG appear not to have been true representatives of shareholders. Thats why Cuomo is right to intervene. How can the board at AIG be doing their job? They were still letting the old boys club have free reign even afterAIG’s near-death experience: the NY Times reported that in the days after receiving a government bailout package of close to $100 billion, AIG staff: went on a $442,000 weeklong resort retreat and another group o AIG officials flew to England on a private jet for a partridge hunt — at a estimated cost of $90,000. “AIGs belief is that they had the party, and the taxpayers will have the hangover, Mr. Cuomo said.