Getting Wall Street Pay Reform Right

There’s mounting talk on Capitol Hill that a Wall Street bailout will include some limits on executive compensation, as well as contradictory reports about whether a deal on controlling executive pay has already been reached.

Four days ago, such a move seemed very unlikely. But the pushback from Congress — from both Democrats and Republicans — has been surprisingly robust, thanks in considerable part to a surge of outrage from the public.

Will restrictions on CEO pay just be a symbolic retribution, as some have charged?

The answer is, it depends.

Meaningful limits not just on CEO pay, but also on the Wall Street bonus culture, could significantly affect the way the financial sector does business. Some CEO pay proposals, by contrast, would extract a pound of flesh from some executives but have little impact on incentive structures.

There are at least five reasons why it is important to address executive compensation as part of the bailout legislation.

First, there should be some penalty for executives who led their companies — and the global financial system — to the brink of ruin. You shouldn’t be rewarded for failure. And while reducing pay packages to seven digits may feel really nasty given Wall Street’s culture of preposterous excess, in the real world, a couple million bucks is still a lot of money to make in a year.

Second, if the public is going to subsidize Wall Street to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, the point is to keep the financial system going — not to keep Wall Street going the way it was. Funneling public funds for exorbitant executive compensation would be a criminal appropriation of public funds.

Third, the Wall Street salary structure has helped set the standard for CEO pay across the economy, and helped establish a culture where executives consider outlandish pay packages the norm. This culture, in turn, has contributed to staggering wealth and income inequality, at great cost to the nation. We need, it might be said, an end to the culture of hyper-wealth.

Fourth, as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research says, the bailout package must be, to some extent, “punitive.” If the financial firms and their executives do not have to give something up for the bailout, then there’s no disincentive to engage in unreasonably risky behavior in the future. This is what is meant by “moral hazard.”

If Wall Street says the financial system is on the brink of collapse, and the government must step in with what may be the biggest taxpayer bailout in history, says Baker, then Wall Street leaders have to show they mean it. If they are not willing to cut their pay for a few years to a couple of million dollars an annum, how serious do they really think the problem is?

Finally, and most importantly, financial sector compensation systems need to be changed so they don’t incentivize risky, short-term behavior.

There are two ways to think about how the financial sector let itself develop such a huge exposure to a transparently bubble housing market. One is that the financial wizards actually believed all the hype they were spreading. They believed new financial instruments eliminated risk, or spread it so effectively that downside risks were minimal; and they believed the idea that something had fundamentally changed in the housing market, and skyrocketing home prices would never return to earth.

Another way to think about it is: Wall Street players knew they were speculating in a bubble economy. But the riches to be made while the bubble was growing were extraordinary. No one could know for sure when the bubble would pop. And Wall Street bonuses are paid on a yearly basis. If your firm does well, and you did well for the firm, you get an extravagant bonus. This is not an extra few thousand dollars to buy fancy Christmas gifts. Wall Street bonuses can be 10 or 20 times base salary, and commonly represent as much as four fifths of employees’ pay. In this context, it makes sense to take huge risks. The payoffs from benefiting from a bubble are dramatic, and there’s no reward for staying out.

Both of these explanations may be true to some degree, but the compensation incentives explanation is almost certainly a significant part of the story.

Different ideas about how to limit executive pay would address the multiple rationales for compensation reforms to varying degrees.

A two-year cap on executive salaries would help achieve the first four objectives, but by itself wouldn’t get to the crucial issue of incentives.

One idea in particular to be wary of is “say on pay” proposals, which would afford shareholders the right to a non-binding vote on CEO pay compensation packages. These proposals would go some way to address the disconnect between executive and shareholder interests, reducing the ability of top executives to rely on crony boards of directors and conflicted compensation consultants to implement outrageous pay packages. But while they might increase executive accountability to shareholders, they wouldn’t direct executives away from market-driven short-term decision making. Shareholders tend to be forgiving of outlandish salaries so long as they are making money, too, and — worse — they actually tend to have more of a short-term mentality than the executives. So “say on pay” is not a good way to address the multiple executive compensation-related goals that should be met in the bailout legislation.

The ideal provisions on executive compensation would set tough limits on top pay, but would also insist on long-term changes in the bonus culture for executives and traders. Not only should bonuses be more modest, they should be linked to long-term, not year-long, performance. That would completely change the incentive to knowingly participate in a financial bubble (or, more generously, take on excessive risk), because you would know that the eventual popping of the bubble would wipe out your bonus.

Four days ago, forcing Wall Street to change its incentive structure seemed pie in the sky. Today, thanks to the public uproar, it seems eminently achievable — if Members of Congress seize the opportunity

The Financial Crisis: How and Why Congress Should Play for Time

Here’s the situation: Thanks to its own inability to control itself, Wall Street is now facing a crisis unmatched since the Great Depression. Unfortunately, a collapse of the financial sector would not only hurt rich investors, it would devastate the global economy. So, government action is imperative.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke say immediate Congressional legislation is imperative. And Congress is adjourning at the end of this week, with Members eager to get back to their districts and states to campaign.

But there is no way to handle the complexity of a $700 billion bailout in a few days.

There are some really hard questions about how to structure a Wall Street bailout program. Financial firms have to be subsidized, but they also have to feel some serious pain. Figuring out who to subsidize, and how much, is tricky. Determining how to ensure taxpayers get the best and fairest payback from the subsidized financial institutions is complicated. And developing a transparent and accountable structure to administer a $700 billion program buying and selling exotic securities is no easy matter.

Meanwhile, it would be unconscionable to bail out Wall Street but not protect homeowners and renters in homes that may be foreclosed on. Between allegedly super-sophisticated Wall Street hot shots and people who were fooled into taking bad mortgages — or who have the misfortunate of renting from a landlord who’s being foreclosed on — it’s obvious who is more deserving of government assistance. But Congress and the President have not been able to agree on plans anywhere near commensurate with the scale of the problem over the past year-plus. It’s very hard to see how a proper and sufficiently scaled system of protection and assistance for homeowners and vulnerable renters is agreed upon in a few days.

The current financial mess is the outgrowth of a quarter-century rollback of regulations that controlled what financial firms could do, and protected financial titans from their own worst instincts. Wall Street is chastened right now, but it is a 100 percent certainty that the speculative culture will reemerge with a vengeance — and in much shorter order than many now seem to believe — unless regulatory standards are imposed to prevent a repeat of the current disaster. Legislation affording Wall Street what may be the biggest bailout in history is the time to attach new, robust regulatory rules. There are a lot of good ideas floating around about sound financial regulation, but the details are extraordinarily intricate and convoluted. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily handle in a few days, even if you burn the candle at both ends.

Given the time pressure and the realities of the legislative process, is there anything Congress can do, other than make some minor adjustments to the Paulson proposal that asks Congress to give the Treasury Secretary $700 billion and trust him to make good decisions?

Yes. Congress can play for time.

Here are two ways Congress can give itself more time to do justice to the bailout legislation.

Option One: Congressional leadership commits itself publicly to doing bailout legislation. The leaders commit to a hard date — maybe a week from Friday, maybe two weeks — and announce that the Congress will reconvene on that date, with a guaranteed vote on the same day. They might even usher through legislation now that limits the length of debate and guarantees an up-or-down vote. The urgency to act now reflects Wall Street’s crystallized panic. An assurance of pending action should quiet the panic enough for the economy to continue to function.

A variant of this idea is that Congress commit to adopt bailout legislation in a lame duck session, after the election. Even with a guaranteed vote, this option would enable more extended investigation, hearings and debate. But it would drag the process out longer, and a judgment would have to be made that the financial markets could remain calm enough, for long enough.

Option Two: Congress adopts the Paulson plan this week, with two major modifications. Instead of the requested $700 billion, Congress appropriates $100 billion. Congressional leaders commit to reconvene in a lame duck session, and guarantee a vote on the remaining $600 billion. However, the $600 billion package includes provisions that direct how the bailout is to be conducted, includes protections for homeowners, and imposes meaningful regulatory standards. The second key feature of the initial appropriating legislation is that it specifies firms benefiting from the $100 billion bailout fund agree to accept the terms imposed on the $600 billion bailout fund. That way, only the most troubled firms step up right away for bailouts, and no firm is able to escape the conditions imposed after Congress has more time to think through the implications of the bailout deal.

There is real urgency to act. But Congress still has the ability to dodge the Paulson steamroller and buy some time to do legitimate legislating.

The Financial Re-Regulatory Agenda

As the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department careen from one financial meltdown to another, desperately trying to hold together the financial system — and with it, the U.S. and global economy — there are few voices denying that Wall Street has suffered from “excesses” over the past several years.

The current crisis is the culmination of a quarter century’s deregulation. Even as the Fed and Treasury scramble to contain the damage, there must be a simultaneous effort to reconstruct a regulatory system to prevent future disasters.

There is more urgency to such an effort than immediately apparent. If the Fed and Treasury succeed in controlling the situation and avoiding a collapse of the global financial system, then it is a near certainty that Big Finance — albeit a financial sector that will look very different than it appeared a year ago — will rally itself to oppose new regulatory standards. And the longer the lag between the end (or tailing off) of the financial crisis and the imposition of new legislative and regulatory rules, the harder it will be to impose meaningful rules on the financial titans.

The hyper-complexity of the existing financial system makes it hard to get a handle on how to reform the financial sector. (And, by the way, beware of generic calls for “reform” — for Wall Street itself taken up this banner over the past couple years. For the financial mavens, “reform” still means removing the few regulatory and legal requirements they currently face.)

But the complexity of the system also itself suggests the most important reform efforts: require better disclosure about what’s going on, make it harder to engage in complicated transactions, prohibit some financial innovations altogether, and require that financial institutions properly fulfill their core responsibilities of providing credit to individuals and communities.

(For more detailed discussion of these issues — all in plain, easy-to-understand language, see these comments from Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO, The American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner, author of the The Squandering of America and Obama’s Challenge, and Richard Bookstaber, author of A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation.)

Here are a dozen steps to restrain and redirect Wall Street and Big Finance:

1. Expand the scope of financial regulation. Investment banks and hedge funds have been able to escape the minimal regulatory standards imposed on other financial institutions. Especially with the government safety net — including access to Federal Reserve funds — extended beyond the traditional banking sector, this regulatory black hole must be eliminated.

2. Impose much more robust standards for disclosure and transparency. Hedge funds, investment banks and the off-the-books affiliates of traditional banks have engaged in complicated and intertwined transactions, such that no one can track who owes what, to whom. Without this transparency, it is impossible to understand what is going on, and where intervention is necessary before things spin out of control.

3. Prohibit off-the-books transactions. What’s the purpose of accounting standards, or banking controls, if you can evade them by simply by creating off-the-books entities?

4. Impose regulatory standards to limit the use of leverage (borrowed money) in investments. High flyers like leveraged investments because they offer the possibility of very high returns. But they also enable extremely risky investments — since they can vastly exceed an investor’s actual assets — that can threaten not just the investor but, if replicated sufficiently, the entire financial system.

5. Prohibit entire categories of exotic new financial instruments. So-called financial “innovation” has vastly outstripped the ability of regulators or even market participants to track what is going on, let alone control it. Internal company controls routinely fail to take into account the possibility of overall system failure — i.e., that other firms will suffer the same worst case scenario — and thus do not recognize the extent of the risks inherent in new instruments.

6. Subject commodities trading to much more extensive regulation. Commodities trading has become progressively deregulated. As speculators have flooded into the commodities markets, the trading markets have become increasingly divorced from the movement of actual commodities, and from their proper role in helping farmers and other commodities producers hedge against future price fluctuations.

7. Tax rules should be changed so as to remove the benefits to corporate reliance on debt. “Payments on corporate debt are tax deductible, whereas payments to equity are not,” explains Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO. “This means that, once you take the tax effect into account, any given company can support much more debt than it can equity.” This tax arrangement has fueled the growth of private equity firms that rely on borrowed money to buy corporations. Many are now going bankrupt.

8. Impose a financial transactions tax. A small financial transactions tax would curb the turbulence in the markets, and, generally, slow things down. It would give real-economy businesses more space to operate without worrying about how today’s decisions will affect their stock price tomorrow, or the next hour. And it would be a steeply progressive tax that could raise substantial sums for useful public purposes.

9. Impose restraints on executive and top-level compensation. The top pay for financial impresarios is more than obscene. Executive pay and bonus schedules tied to short-term performance played an important role in driving the worst abuses on Wall Street.

10. Revive competition policy. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, separating traditional banks from investment banks, was the culmination of a progressive deregulation of the banking sector. In the current environment, banks are gobbling up the investment banks. But this arrangement is paving the way for future problems. When the investment banks return to high-risk activity at scale (and over time they will, unless prohibited by regulators), they will directly endanger the banks of which they are a part. Meanwhile, further financial conglomeration worsens the “too big to fail” problem — with the possible failure of the largest institutions viewed as too dangerous to the financial system to be tolerated — that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson cannot now avoid despite his best efforts. In this time of crisis, it may not be obvious how to respect and extend competition principles. But it is a safe bet that concentration and conglomeration will pose new problems in the future.

11. Adopt a financial consumer protection agenda that cracks down on abusive lending practices. Macroeconomic conditions made banks interested in predatory subprime loans, but it was regulatory failures that permitted them to occur. And it’s not just mortgage and home equity loans. Credit card and student loan companies have engaged in very similar practices — pushing unsustainable debt on unreasonable terms, with crushing effect on individuals, and ticking timebomb effects on lenders.

12. Support governmental, nonprofit, and community institutions to provide basic financial services. The effective governmental takeover of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG means the U.S. government is going to have a massive, direct stake in the global financial system for some time to come. What needs to be emphasized as a policy measure, though, is a back-to-basics approach. There is a role for the government in helping families get mortgages on reasonable terms, and it should make sure Fannie and Freddie, and other agencies, serve this function. Government student loan services offer a much better deal than private lender alternatives. Credit unions can deliver the basic banking services that people need, but they need back-up institutional support to spread and flourish.

What is needed, in short, is to reverse the financial deregulatory wave of the last quarter century. As Big Finance mutated and escaped from the modest public controls to which it had been subjected, it demanded that the economy serve the financial sector. Now it’s time to make sure the equation is reversed.