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Yes to Limiting Top Executives Compensation

by Debra L. Morrison

I was particularly encouraged by the top executive compensation limits set forth in the Stimulus Plan, yet dismayed when they were eliminated or watered down.

The Stimulus Plan passed by a 246-183 and a 60-38 margin in the House and Senate respectively. Although Republicans Collins, Spechter and Snow all were instrumental in hammering out several compromises, nary a House Republican cast a FOR vote; some predicting ruin if it passed.

Are we not IN a ruinous condition? Haven't these same Republicans asked an unemployed person, uninsured family or elderly citizen eating cat food recently how they're doing?

If it wasn't such a serious situation I might have been amused to read of worry there'll be a brain drain on Wall Street, if top level executive comp was limited. Recently insiders' voiced concerns that excessive taxes being voted upon AIG's & Merrill Lynch's top officials' retention bonuses were somehow unfair.

Responding to our government's attempts to reclaim $4.4 million of retention bonuses for Freddie Mac & Fannie Mae's four top executives, Federal Housing Finance Agency Director James Lockhart said, "We run a great risk of these same employees deciding this is the last straw and walking away."

Many Americans who do theirs, and also the work of those laid off, could easily cop the "last straw" excuse, but do not. Yet according to their annual Securities and Exchange Commission report, Fannie Mae apparently paid their Deputy Chief Financial Officer a tidy $1.1 million retention bonus AND an additional $160,000 cash bonus for filing their financial statements on time. Call me old fashioned, but I remember times when if you didn't do your job on time you were demoted or fired.

With all due respect, Mr. Lockhart, just where would these overpaid executives of failed agencies "walk" to? Last I looked, a fair amount of unemployment has set up camp, and hedge fund managers-the once easy fall back position from corporate America-are in line to buy tents.

Apparently there is a growing belief that there aren't any top level executives out there with a desire to return to some semblance of integrity, who would gain pride-yes other types of gains do exist besides the almighty greenback--in being instrumental in breathing new life into our once proud, now dilapidated, financial institutions.

Michael S. Melbinger, an executive compensation lawyer at Winsteon & Strawn in Chicago commented on the Stimulus Plan's proposed top executive pay limitations, "There is no pay for performance in this." Have we not already issued FAR too much pay for FAR too little performance for FAR too many years on Wall Street?

Are there no motivated individuals whom may be enticed with the near promise of fame and future book or movie deals (that would surely provide more wealth than an annual salary OR bonus) when they put their shoulder to the grindstone and lifted their companies out of the ashes and into a Phoenix state? Might even a few talented individuals remain of the Warren Buffet ilk-in 2008 he received the same $100,000 of base salary he has for 25 years, and $25,000 of director fees-- that would be motivated by their good name being upheld, or their not-so-good name being raised up a notch or two, when they performed?

Yes, President Obama's admonition for us all to "pitch in" applies even to top executives. It's time they use their brains for a tiny bit more than their family's luxury ski trips and ultra (not-green) fleets of bling-bling cars and otherwise opulent life styles, and roll up their sleeves to restore even a modicum of consumer confidence in the system.

Not only would this be smart, it may better ensure that we don't touch off class wars. The middle class is shrinking rapidly. There's a clearer distinction between the haves and the have nots; and the have nots are restless.

So not just is it moral to provide hope for hard working Americans, it is economically essential to stop the horrifically steep increases in unemployment. Let's get people back to work. Some of them are downright hungry; some justifiably angry. For those of us with jobs and food, we're looking for some measure of controls on those whose appetite for unlimited personal gain is apparently unrequited.

As a financial advisor, I'd be grateful for some signs that our government is strengthening Wall Street, so that I could encourage people to "invest in the stock of America" again.

Absent that confidence, the employed Larry Lunch buckets and Nancy Nurses will park their 401(k) or 403(b) in a fixed income sub-account. Not only will that not hasten the stock markets' recovery, but it will be damning to their long-term purchasing power; very possibly translate into them having to work another 10 years just to make up the lost performance compared to that of stocks, at least historically speaking.

Apparently the big fear is that companies whose executives are greedy beyond words (OR works) will seek to repay TARP monies soonest so they can be out-from-under the new executive compensation restrictions. Then, the fear continues, particularly banks could restrict the flow of loans, etc., that were designed to increase liquidity into the system-you know, Main Street.

Clearly they forgot to insert the "instructions for use" page into the TARP check envelopes; the ones where the banks were supposed to be lending to mom and pop America, not sucking up other foreign or domestic financial institutions to buttress their balance sheets, or worse yet, pay themselves big year-end bonuses. Remind me, how then would the non-flow of monies stop if TARP monies were to be repaid?

Failed companies' top execs need to admit to themselves and their families they weren't worth those groups of zeroes, nor will they receive such disproportionate compensation for horrific performance going forward. They'll perform in a fiduciary capacity and take what the shareholders feel is commensurate to their performance for the next 2 years. They'll acknowledge this will indeed involve a lifestyle adjustment--something they could receive free training on, from droves of other executives laid off even since September 2008.

There's no silver bullet; yet there's a hole in our collective row boat. We can't waste time fussing about whose end it's in; start bailing. The votes have been cast; a Stimulus Bill has passed. There's no time for smug, "I'm not responsible cause I didn't vote for it" excuses. If there's anything I hate it's a quitter, worse yet a sore loser, or a person who refuses to entertain an idea that didn't originate in their own corpus collosum. Let all that rationale comprise your campaign rhetoric next election. In the meantime, roll up your sleeves as elected politicians and work till the job is done.

What history will report on, is who did what to contribute to sound legislation to monitor the use of these Stimulus Plan funds; best ensuring that the end result is not perfect, yet the most favorable, towards solving America's biggest problems.

This country, its citizens, and their financial health and hopes rest on your bi-partisan cooperation.

About the Author: Debra L. Morrison, CFP®, MS, AEP is a sought after international motivational speaker who motivates audiences of mature women to master their finances, through generous helpings of humor and analogy.