Never in modern business has so much been given to so few for such colossally failed results.
In just five years, these three CEOs made more than $460 million while leading their companies into the greatest losses in their history. One of them, Charles O. Prince of Citigroup, even got a bonus of $10 million, despite presiding over more than $20 billion in losses and write-downs. Stanley O’Neal left with $161 million after Merrill Lynch chalked up its largest losses ever. And Countrywide Financial‘s Angelo Mozilo, one of the highest compensated CEOs in America, has pocketed more than $400 million since 1999. The company has lost four times that amount over the past six months. Never in modern business has so much been given to so few for such colossally failed results.
To the average working person, who rarely receives a bonus even for doing an exemplary job, much less a bad one, this performance must have seemed like something of an out-of-body experience. Pay and accomplishment seldom have seemed more disconnected.
But to the past and current CEOs who testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this week, there is no disconnect at all. The universe, for them, unfolded exactly as it should. It was about as we expected.
They, and the heads of the board compensation committees which approved these deals, all offered the usual bromides: The amounts were fully approved; the money was earned; the market is king; high pay is needed to attract and keep the best talent. How it is that CEOs who preside over record losses represent the best talent was never quite explained. One claimed only to want to help homeowners live out the American dream. Another cited his grandfather being born a slave. A third trumpeted his company’s ethics and corporate governance reforms. Mr. Mozilo ventured that the subprime meltdown had a notable culprit: “There was a lot of fraud there.” he told lawmakers. Many will agree, but they might not be thinking about the garden variety mortgage applicants to which Mr. Mozilo was referring. What role more lofty figures had in pushing out subprime loans, and who benefited from the resulting torrent of fees and record bonuses, will be something regulators and legislators should be looking at more closely.
The group of CEOs and directors who appeared before the comittee managed to slice and dice their compensaton decisions so much that they looked like they came out of a boardroom Veg-O-Matic: the pay wasn’t for this year, it was for last; it wasn’t severance, it was deferred compensation; it wasn’t a bonus for this year, it was payment for previous excellent performance. They said they actually lost a lot of money when the stock went down, just like all the other shareholders. Except most other shareholders did not head the company and make the wrong decisions. Most did not run up record losses and most did not receive tens or hundreds of millions in stock options and bonuses and salaries bigger than the state of Texas. One more thing: the process, they testified, is all fully in accord with the Business Roundtable guidelines on CEO compensation. Now that’s a really high bar. The Roundtable is made up of America’s top and best-paid CEOs. The ranking Republican on the Committee, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), called the Business Roundtable guidelines the “gold standard” for corporate compensation. Is that because it makes sure the CEOs get all the gold?
Astonishing even for this group, when asked by Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) if there was any amount they would consider to be too much, there was silence, punctuated by self-serving proclamations of satisfaction with the way things are. All reassured the committee that they were not underpaid, however, and thus a sigh of relief was heard across the country.
America is experiencing one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. The brokerage and mortgage lending industries played the central role in creating this contagion. But if high CEO pay is truly linked to performance and is good for the economy, people will want to know why it is, during a period that has seen the largest transfer of wealth from investors to the boardroom in history, the result is now one of falling stock values, shrinking economic growth, galloping home foreclosures and mounting job losses.
The hearing this week gave a rare opportunity for business leaders to admit that CEO compensation has gotten out of control and that it’s time for a new reality show in the boardroom. What began with the attendance of prominent CEOs and boardroom luminaries ended with the spectacle of men twisted like pretzels, having engaged in every type of contortion to show that these compensation arrangements were reasonable and had nothing to do with decisions to pump out more fee-generating subprime loans and structured investment vehicles. They also sent a veiled warning: any change to or reduction in the way CEOs are compensated, and capitalism as we know it may not survive. Here’s a bulletin for the boardroom: capitalism may not survive the kind of leadership that permits an ever increasing gap between CEO pay and everyone else’s, rewards failure with multi-million dollar bonuses and severance, and sees CEOs spinning off with a king’s ransom while leaving everybody else in the dust.
This was an opportunity for real leaders to admit that there are serious problems between the leadership class of capitalism and those who depend upon it for their well-being. To stand up and acknowledge the trend toward excess, to take the lead in stepping back and not being the first in the lifeboat when disaster strikes, to show some meaningful sacrifice at a time when so many are hurting instead of flashing five figure watches, five thousand dollar suits and a tan direct from the winter mansion at Palm Beach (or Palm Springs) -this would have been the kind of leadership that CEOs showed during two great wars and other times that tested America. This group showed none of that. One suspects they are, regrettably, an accurate reflection of the pool of CEOs and directors of which they are a part.
Excessive CEO pay has become synonymous with what is worst about American business: crony boards where one back scratches the other; compliant compensation committees made up of past and current CEOs; and an ethical value system enabling displays of greed and over indulgence that is not something parents generally want to impart to their children. It has been associated with every scandal from Enron and WorldCom to Nortel and Hollinger and countless failures in between. It is now a contributing factor to the recession that is unraveling the world’s credit markets and crippling economic well-being for millions.
What was obvious, too, from the testimony is that none of these CEOs and business leaders is possessed of superhuman ability. All seemed rather ordinary in the insights they offered and in the information they imparted, despite being recipients of extraordinary compensation and a corporate publicity machine that makes superman look like a slacker.
Despite the number of experienced CEOs and directors who appeared before Congress this week, one voice was distinguished by its absence: that was the voice of genuine leadership. America is entitled at a time of crisis to more than the spectacle of hugely paid, decidedly self-satisfied CEOs who feel that the system is working as it should. It needs leaders who recognize there is a need to restore public confidence in capitalism and the ethics of those who steer it. And that requires shared sacrifice and an understanding that, even in the great American boardroom, there are limits to what rational people both need and deserve.
Capitalism, like any household, should be governed by values, and not just who can get the most as quickly as they can. And so the actions of the CEOs and directors who appeared before Congress this week, and the failures of their boards that produced these results, is our choice for the Outrage of the Week.