Bear Stearns’s collapse confirms that excessive CEO pay, along with the feeble corporate governance that permits it, continues to be one of the most corrosive forces in modern business. It offers further evidence that, far from aligning pay with performance, oversized compensation induces risks that lead to disaster. It comes at a price that is too costly to society.
One of the striking features of corporate governance scholarship is that it reveals the same shortcomings and the same calamitous results occurring time and again throughout history.
“The sad case of Penn Central,” Dun’s magazine wrote about the giant corporate collapse in 1970, “is worth mentioning, not because it is unique, but because it is not. Many another US corporation has gotten into trouble because its directors did not do what they were supposed to do, that is, keep a warily inquiring eye on management and ask the right questions at the right time.”
A similar refrain was expressed about the boardroom before and after the Penn Central debacle. As we detailed in Part 1 of this series, Bear Stearns’s weak, distracted and ineptly led board was a contributor to its collapse as well.
Bear was not alone in displaying obvious signs of corporate governance weaknesses, however. Boardroom-wide, directors have permitted the complete discrediting -some would argue hijacking- of the executive compensation system. They have legitimized the creation of payment schemes that have induced CEOs to take on excessive risk in the hope of bringing in fees and deals that push up share values in the short-term and trigger unprecedented awards of stock and bonuses, while at the same time insulating them from the consequences of their actions by guaranteeing golden separation packages in the event of failure.
Excessive CEO pay, as I suggested in a submission to the Senate Banking committee during its Enron-related hearings in 2002, is the most corrosive force in modern business. It is fast eroding respect for the leadership of American capitalism among both shareholders and society. It was a contributing factor in the demise of Enron and Hollinger and in the scandals involving WorldCom, Tyco and many others. Its cancer is also evident in the current economic crisis. Over the past five years, when the foundation for the subprime disaster was being laid, the CEOs of Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Countrywide Financial and Bear Stearns were paid more than half a billion dollars -$556 million- among them.
Like the toxic effects of the credit catastrophe that spread into the housing market, then to the balance sheets of major financial institutions, and finally into the wider economy, the debilitating repercussions of excessive CEO pay and the subprime misjudgments they spawned have long since moved past the shareholder annual meeting and into the recession dampened lives of ordinary people. In the last year of reported filings, James Cayne (then chairman and CEO of the company) and Alan Schwartz (then president and co-chief operating officer) were paid more than $73 million between them. Did the prospect of such huge compensation distort their judgment and tempt them to accept unwise risks and ignore red flags? It is a line of inquiry policy makers ought to pursue with Bear Stearns and throughout the financial industry.
For every year of the past five, while management misjudgments and miscalculations were laying the course for the credit crisis that eventually claimed the investment bank, the compensation committee of Bear’s board declared that it was happy with the performance of the company and that management fully deserved the compensation it was awarded. So blind was the committee to any notion of excessive risk that was being taken, it simply copied and pasted many of its statements of praise and satisfaction from one proxy statement to the next. “Therefore, the compensation paid to the Company’s executive officers reflects the Company’s strong absolute and relative performance” was how the compensation committee was fond of putting it -so fond, in fact, that it used exactly the same phrase year after year.
Close ties and over familiarity may also have been a problem with Bear’s compensation committee. The board’s pay panel was headed by 81-year-old Carl D. Glickman. While securities filings by the company claim that he has been a Bear director since 1985, biographical information provided by Cleveland State University, where Mr. Glickman is also a trustee, claims he has served on Bear’s board since 1978.
At the very least, the compensation committee’s culture, structure and decisions raise unsettling questions about whether its products are more the reflection of a cozy club mentality of close connections than the result of vigorous market forces and heavy negotiation.
As we noted earlier, long-time chairman and former Bear CEO James Cayne recently sold all his holdings in the firm to net $61 million, according to formal declarations. By some standards, that sum is far below what his holdings were worth a few months ago. On the other hand, he has long been chief officer of the Bear Stearns ship. Having set its ill-fated course, it is remarkable that he came out with anything at all. The ship is going down, but Captain Cayne managed to jump into the Fed-sponsored lifeboat before anyone else. It is not often that any single person, much less one who has been such an outspoken advocate for free market capitalism as Mr. Cayne, can trace his added wealth to the entire apparatus of the federal government coming to his rescue, and to the Federal Reserve taking actions not seen since the depths of the Great Depression.
The subprime scandal also exposed holes in the governance of other investment banks. Merrill Lynch, as incoming CEO John Thain observed, had a risk committee that didn’t function. And Countrywide Financial, which likes to think of itself as a bank, has another all-male boardroom that seldom formally meets and where the compensation committee writes with a hyperactive pen that seems unable to stop putting zeros at the end the CEO’s paycheck. How it permitted a situation where the CEO was allowed to sell a substantial chunk of his own shares at a time when the company was engaged in a share repurchase plan which pushed the price up constitutes an unbecoming stretch for even the most compliant board.
But Bear Stearns is the first institution of its kind to collapse so dramatically with the fingerprints of questionable corporate governance practices found throughout the ruins. There was a disconnect between what the board was supposed to be doing and what it actually did. In that respect, it is reminiscent of the approach taken by another board: Enron’s. It did not end well for that company, either.
The directors of Bear Stearns were paid well for their duties -at least $200,000 each. Management directors were paid in the tens of millions every year. For that sum, and under the board’s unhurried watch, shareholders and employees were treated to the privilege of witnessing the unthinkable: an 85-year-old institution that survived the Great Depression and two world wars only to slide under the turbulent sea of subprime folly, leaving a token reminder in its decimated share price that it once existed at all.
“Where was the board?” is a question governance scholars and others have increasingly come to inquire during times of corporate calamity. It has been asked of many large failures over much of the past 100 years. But for this most recent boardroom mishap an even more probing question needs to be posed: “If Bear Stearns had no chairman and no board at all, would the results have been any worse?”