Archive for the ‘Executive Compensation’ Category

What’s the Point of Profits?

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

mrmoneybagsAccording to conventional economic theory, corporations earn profits in large part to finance expansion, which means both additional investment and more hiring. How old fashioned. As an article the other day in the Wall Street Journal points out, today’s executives at publicly traded firms increasingly think that the most important use of excess cash is to buy back portions of the company’s stock from investors. The Journal notes that one in four companies in the S&P 500 index have recently carried out stock buybacks.

This practice, which was once limited to troubled companies seeking to prop up a faltering stock price, is now becoming an epidemic. In an earlier article, the Journal reported that buybacks in the first half of this year totaled $338 billion, putting 2014 on track to break last year’s figure of $600 billion.

Out-of-control buybacks are symptomatic both of rampant executive greed and the growing unwillingness of large corporations to grow in a way that will bring about broad-based economic prosperity. The greed comes into play because the buybacks automatically increase corporate earnings-per-share figures, which are widely used as a basis for determining executive compensation levels.

In addition to lining their own pockets, executives who carry out buybacks are refusing to invest in growth. As the Journal put it: “While the economy has crawled back to life, many businesses remain reluctant to buy new equipment, build factories or hire workers.” For these top managers, all that matters is their personal enrichment.

It’s significant that the company listed by the Journal as one of the most aggressive users of buybacks is Ingersoll-Rand, which has employed the technique to boost its EPS figure about 90 percent over the past year. What the Journal does not mention is that Ingersoll-Rand is one the corporations that has reincorporated abroad to dodge U.S. taxes, moving on paper first to Bermuda and then to Ireland.

Like other companies going through so-called inversions, Ingersoll-Rand did not change where it did its actual business. The purportedly Irish company derives 59 percent of its revenues from the United States and has 80 percent of its long-lived assets there.

Apologists for inversions claim they help generate higher net profits that companies use for investment and job creation, yet Ingersoll-Rand shows how such a firm is instead using its ill-gotten gains to buy back stock and thus propel its top executives higher into the 1 Percent.

The edition of the Journal with the buyback article also ran a piece with the headline “As Life Span Grows, So do Worries on Pensions.” The fact that people are living longer is apparently seen as a problem for those companies that still provide defined-benefit retirement plans. New actuarial data show that the average 65-year-old will live more than two years longer (to 88.8 years for women, 86.6 years for men) than was estimated in 2000. This is expected to increase retirement plan liabilities by about 7 percent.

Experts quoted in the article expect that corporations will respond to the change primarily by accelerating their move into 401(k)s and other defined-contribution benefits which relieve the employer of long-term financial responsibilities. It does not seem to occur to business leaders that all that excess cash going into stock buybacks could instead be devoted to pension plans that now have even more need for better funding.

Private Equity and Public Assistance

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

schwarzmanEverything seems to be coming up roses for the barons of private equity. A front-page article in the Wall Street Journal headlined BLOWOUT HAUL FOR BUYOUT TYCOONS proclaims: “Private equity’s top moguls took home more than $2.6 billion last year as booming markets allowed their firms to cash out of investments and notch blockbuster gains.”

Leon Black, the founder and chief executive of Apollo Global Management, led the pack with $546 million in compensation. Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone received $465 million and William Conway of the Carlyle Group $346 million. These three men are also well-placed on the new Forbes list of the world’s billionaires. Schwarzman comes in at No.122 with a net worth of $10 billion; Black at No. 240 and a net worth of $5.8 billion; and Conway No. 520 with $3.1 billion in net worth.

Vibrant stock markets are not the only reason for these massive paydays and accumulated fortunes. It’s well known that these firms and their principals also make out like bandits because of the favorable federal tax treatment of the revenue they extract from their portfolio companies. Now it is possible to demonstrate the extent to which the buyout kings are also being subsidized by state and local governments.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First recently unveiled a major enhancement of our Subsidy Tracker database. The main refinement in version 2.0 is the addition of parent-subsidiary linkages for more than 25,000 individuals entries accounting for 75 percent of the dollar value of the entire Tracker universe. These entries have been linked to nearly 1,000 parent companies, including many of the world’s largest corporations.

Included among the parent companies are the big private equity firms. In our matching process, we made sure to check which of the portfolio companies of those buyout firms were among the subsidy recipients included in Tracker. We found a lot.

Of the 50 largest buyout firms on the Private Equity International ranking of the largest players in that field,  30 were found to have subsidized portfolio companies. (Many of the other 20 either don’t reveal their portfolios or don’t do business in the United States.) Those companies had received a total of 1,332 subsidies worth $1.8 billion (dollar values are not available for some awards).

Here are the buyout firms whose portfolio companies have received the most in cumulative subsidies:

  • Silver Lake Partners is No. 35 on our list of top parent companies, with total associated subsidies of $482 million. This is mainly a reflection of the fact that Silver Lake took over the computer company Dell, which has received giant subsidies in places such as North Carolina and Tennessee.  (We attribute past subsidies to a company’s current parent, since awards often stretch over many years and usually transfer with a change of ownership.)
  • Onex is No. 45 on the list with subsidies of $388 million, the largest amounts coming from the large packages Spirit AeroSystems received in North Carolina and Kansas.
  • Blackstone is No. 91, with 141 subsidy awards totaling $203 million awarded to several dozen of its portfolio companies.
  • Apollo Global Management comes in at No. 111, with 107 subsidies amounting to $158 million. Among its most heavily subsidized portfolio companies are Berry Plastics and Verso Paper.

Other major buyout firms are also on the list, including TPG Capital ($68.6 million), KKR ($54.9 million), Bain Capital ($51.6 million) and the Carlyle Group ($36.6 million).

By themselves, state and local subsidies are usually not the predominant factor in the profitability of a portfolio company, but they certainly can contribute to a fatter bottom line. In a recent article about Subsidy Tracker, the investor website Motley Fool wrote:

Companies which are clearly adept at seeking out incentives are much more likely to be able to keep more of their hard-earned income as these subsidies often take the form of a multi-year tax break. Lower effective taxes within a state can allow for more research and development as well as hiring, which can lead to even faster growth for these companies. In other words, seeking out companies with large subsidies is another way of giving yourself an edge over the uninformed investor. Keep in mind that a large subsidy alone is no guarantee of a companies’ success, but it often translates into lower taxes and higher profits.

And when that company is in the portfolio of a buyout firm, those higher profits means that the operation can more easily be taken public and further enrich the likes of Black, Schwarzman and Conway.

The Golden Gag and Other Sins of Novartis

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

vasellaNovartis raked in more than $12 billion in profits last year, but it was a planned expenditure of $78 million that prompted an uprising by the Swiss drug giant’s shareholders and compelled the company’s management to make an embarrassing about-face. The reason is that the $78 million was an unwarranted giveaway to the retiring chairman.

In January, Novartis announced that Daniel Vasella (photo) would leave the company after serving in top positions for the past 17 years. Vasella had already been granted more than $12 million in retirement benefits after he gave up the chief executive’s post in 2010 while staying on the board of directors as chairman with another $12 million in additional annual compensation. That payout was highly controversial, coming after years of fat CEO paychecks for Vasella.

It also set the stage for the current scandal, which grew out of a plan to pay Vasella not to work for another pharmaceutical company for the next six years. The non-competition agreement is referred to in the European press as a “golden gag” arrangement.

The pent up anger against Vasella was obvious in the reaction to the announcement. The corporate accountability group Ethos called on shareholders to withhold their support for the re-election of members of the board’s compensation committee. One Swiss official denounced the payment, saying “it does huge damage to the social cohesion in our country.” A lawyer in Zurich filed a criminal complaint against Novartis, the compensation committee and Vasella for breach of trust and lying to shareholders. A public statement by Vasella that he would donate the money to charity did little to quell the uproar.

The subsequent decision by Novartis to drop the plan was a significant victory for corporate accountability activists and critics of excessive executive and director pay, who have been targeting bloated compensation not only at Novartis but also at other large Swiss companies.

What’s ironic, however, is that this planned parting payment to Vasella generated a lot more controversy than other, arguably more serious sins of the company during his tenure, especially those committed in its U.S. operations.

For example, in 2010 Novartis had to pay $422 million to U.S. authorities to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from charges that it engaged in illegal marketing of its epilepsy drug Trileptal, including the payment of kickbacks to doctors to get them to prescribe the medication for off-label and potentially dangerous purposes.

That same year, Eon Laboratories, a Novartis subsidiary, agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle allegations that it violated the U.S. False Claims Act by submitting inaccurate reports to the federal government that obscured the fact that the Food and Drug Administration had found that the company’s Nitroglycerin Sustained Release capsules lacked substantial evidence of effectiveness.

In 2005 a Novartis U.S. unit, OPI Properties, had agreed to pay $49.2 million in civil and criminal fines and be excluded from federal healthcare contracts to resolve charges relating to its improper marketing of nutritional products to the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

In 2005 a group of women who had worked as sales representatives for Novartis in the United States filed a lawsuit against the company, saying they were discriminated against in pay and promotions, especially after becoming pregnant. In 2010 a federal jury ruled in favor of the women, awarding them $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages. Novartis appealed and then settled the case for $152 million.

Novartis has also been at the center of a worldwide controversy over the pricing of its cancer medication Gleevec (Glivec in Europe), a year’s supply of which in the early 2000s was priced at about $27,000. Novartis sought to quiet the criticism by promising to give the drug away to many of those who could not afford it, but in 2003 it was reported that the effort was falling far short of expectations.

Novartis later found itself in a battle with the Indian government, which rejected the company’s patent application for Gleevec as part of its effort to encourage the production of low-cost generic drugs for poor countries. A wide range of non-governmental organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, called on Novartis to drop its suit, which was heard by the Indian Supreme Court in 2012.

Novartis was right to cancel its big giveaway to Vasella, but the company has a lot more to answer for.

Note: The latest addition to my Corporate Rap Sheets collection is dossier number 41, describing the track record of another ethically challenged Swiss company, Credit Suisse.

Through A Corporate Glass, Darkly

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Conventional wisdom has it that we live in an age of hyper-transparency. That’s true if you look at what people are willing to reveal about themselves to Facebook, but it’s another story for large corporations and the 1%.

The Republican filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act and Mitt Romney’s reluctance to release more of his income tax returns are strong reminders of how those at the top of the economic pyramid seek to hide the ways they accumulate their wealth and influence public policy.

The current preoccupation with disclosure issues makes this a good time to step back and review the state of corporate transparency. Do we know enough about the workings of the huge private institutions that dominate so much of modern life?

Of course, the answer is no. Yet the quantity and quality of disclosure vary greatly depending on the structure of a given company and the aspect of its operations one chooses to examine. Depending on which piece of the business elephant we touch, corporations may seen somewhat translucent or completely opaque.

It’s also worth remembering that there are two main forms of disclosure: information that companies, especially those whose stock is publicly traded, are compelled to reveal and the data that government agencies collect about firms and release to the public. What corporations release on their own initiative is, given its selective nature, self-serving spin rather than disclosure.

Most of what U.S. companies are required to disclose is contained in the financial filings required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s great that the SEC makes these documents readily available via its EDGAR online system, but the information required from companies is meant to serve the needs of investors rather than those of us concerned with corporate accountability. There is thus an abundance of data on financial results and a meager amount on a company’s social impacts. Here’s a rundown and critique of disclosure practices regarding the latter.

LEGAL PROCEEDINGS. Each company filing a 10-K annual report has to include a section summarizing significant litigation and other legal proceedings in which it is involved. For some companies, these sections can go on for pages, which says a lot about the corporate tendency to run afoul of the law. Even so, these sections are often incomplete, since companies are given discretion in deciding which cases are “material,” meaning that fines and other penalties could have a significant impact on earnings.  To get a fuller picture of corporate legal entanglements, you need to search the dockets on the PACER subscription service, which for large companies will be voluminous, or use the free summaries on the Justia website.

EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION. The annual proxy statements filed by publicly traded companies provide exhaustive details on the salaries, bonuses and other compensation received by top executives (and directors).  Designated in the EDGAR system as Form DEF14A, these documents seem to try to drown the reader in details to downplay the impact of lavish pay packages. Note that what is called the Summary Compensation Table does not include essential information such as the amount (shown elsewhere) that an executive realized from the exercise of stock options.

EMPLOYMENT ISSUES. Companies are required to disclose their total number of employees but do not have to provide a geographical breakdown. Some do so voluntarily, but many others can hide the tendency to create many more jobs in foreign cheap-labor havens than at home. Because the penalties are usually small, companies tend not to disclose violations of federal rules regarding overtime pay, the minimum wage and other Fair Labor Standards Act issues.  Fortunately, the Department of Labor has included wage and hour compliance information in its new enforcement website.

OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH. Companies also rarely mention violations of occupational safety and health, for which penalties are also meager. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to its credit, makes available a database of all workplace inspection results going back to the creation of the agency; the DOL enforcement website provides access to this as well. Unfortunately, there are no summaries of the compliance records of large companies across their various establishments.

LABOR RELATIONS. Companies are required to report on labor relations issues only if there is a likelihood of a work stoppage that could affect corporate profits. With the decline of unions in the U.S. private sector, many companies do not bother to mention labor relations at all. Disputes that result in a formal ruling by the National Labor Relations Board will show up on that agency’s website.

ENVIRONMENTAL COMPLIANCE. Companies frequently discuss environmental regulation in the 10-K filings and will mention major enforcement actions. Yet these accounts are usually incomplete.  The Environmental Protection Agency fills in the gaps with its Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database.

TAXES. Buried in the notes to the company’s financial statements is a section with details on how much it paid (or in many cases did not pay) in the way of taxes. This information is presented with a high degree of obfuscation, so it is fortunate that Citizens for Tax Justice publishes reports that summarize the extent to which large U.S. companies engage in flagrant tax avoidance.

SUBSIDIES. Corporate filings usually say little or nothing about the subsidies received from government, and it is often impossible to learn from other sources what those amounts may be when it comes to subsidies that take the form of federal tax breaks. There is much more company-specific data available on subsidies from state governments. In my capacity as research director of Good Jobs First, I have collected that data and assembled it in the Subsidy Tracker database.

GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS. Companies will report on government contracts only if they make up a substantial portion of their total revenue. Thanks to the work of OMB Watch in creating the FedSpending database, which the federal government adapted for its USASpending tool, it is possible to learn a great deal about how much business a given firm is doing with Uncle Sam. Data on contracts with state governments can often, though not always, be found via state procurement websites.

LOBBYING AND POLITICAL SPENDING. Corporations are not eager to disclose their efforts to shape public policy, and the SEC does not require them to do so. The Center for Political Accountability, on the other hand, was created to put pressure on companies to be more open about their political spending. The group has succeeded in getting about 100 corporations to adopt political disclosure. The inadequate information that gets disclosed at the behest of the Federal Election Commission can be found on websites such as Open Secrets, while state-level electoral data is summarized on the Follow the Money site. Both also provide access to the available data on lobbying.

Inadequate political disclosure by corporations is not limited to the United States. A recent study by Transparency International on 105 of the world’s large companies found that only 26 engaged in satisfactory reporting of political contributions. That was just one component of an analysis that looks at a variety of transparency measures that relate broadly to anti-corruption initiatives. Some of the worst results concern the simple matter of whether firms provide full country-by-country data on their operations and financial results.

The latter shows how disclosure issues of concern to investors and financial analysts can intersect with those relating to corporate accountability. When a company is allowed to use excessive forms of aggregation in its reporting, it may be hiding either poor management or corporate misconduct or both.

Note: The information sources discussed above as well as many others are discussed in my guide to online corporate research.

Good Cop or Bad Cop Obama?

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Barack Obama, bad cop, used the State of the Union address to talk tough about fighting white-collar crime, announcing new initiatives to investigate financial industry fraud and the abusive lending that led to the mortgage meltdown. Unfortunately, the administration of Obama the “good” cop has spent the past three years allowing the perpetrators of those same offenses to escape serious punishment.

The latest indication of the administration’s weak enforcement record came in a report issued just a day before the State of the Union by the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known inside the Beltway as SIGTARP. Not only have the feds failed to put the financial fraudsters behind bars—they can’t even control the industry’s bloated executive pay packages.

Soon after he took office in 2009, Obama made headlines by denouncing banking industry bonuses as “shameful.” He went on to impose $500,000 limits on the cash compensation of senior executives at firms that had received “exceptional assistance” from the Treasury, meaning that they had gotten the fattest bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis. The firms in that category were AIG, Bank of America and Citigroup as well as General Motors and Chrysler, along with the finance affiliates of those automakers.

The impact of the move was diminished somewhat after it soon came to light that AIG was giving out scores of seven-figure bonuses to the employees of the unit that caused the collapse of the company and necessitated a massive federal intervention. The Obama Administration and Congress responded to the uproar by creating a “compensation czar” under the auspices of the Treasury Department to oversee executive pay practices at the designated firms.

Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington lawyer named as czar, challenged the pay deals these firms had already made with their top officers and had successes such as getting outgoing Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis to forgo all of his pay for 2009. In October of that year, the Obama administration said that it would impose a plan devised by Feinberg to cut pay of top earners at the designated firms by about 50 percent. For more than a year there was a steady stream of news articles about the tough measures being meted out by Feinberg until his resignation in September 2010.

According to the new SIGTARP report, much of this was no more than Kabuki theatre. It found that the efforts of Feinberg in what is formally known as the Office of the Special Master (OSM) were less than draconian: “The Special Master could not effectively rein in excessive compensation at the seven companies because he was under the constraint that his most important goal was to get the companies to repay TARP [funds].” The report admits that OSM did bring about some pay reductions, but the idea of a $500,000 pay ceiling was rendered meaningless by its decision to approve “total compensation packages in the millions.”

The largest of those packages was received by AIG CEO Robert Benmosche: $10.5 million in total pay, including $3 million in cash, or six times the purported ceiling. This outsized compensation was going to the company that probably did the most to cause the crisis and that will end up costing the government more than any other bailed out firm.

Many others at the designated firms also broke through the flimsy ceiling. Overall, SIGTARP found, OSM approved 68 pay packages in excess of $1 million in 2009, 71 in 2010 and the same number in 2011. In the latter years there were fewer pay packages for OSM to review, since Citigroup and Bank of America had repaid the special assistance that triggered the oversight of their compensation practices. There have been reports that they took the step precisely to escape that oversight. Given how lenient Feinberg had been in allowing exceptions, it is not clear why they bothered.

Along with the depiction of OSM as a pushover, what is perhaps most telling about the SIGTARP report is the appended response from the Treasury Department. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Treasury claims that “OSM has succeeded in achieving its mission.” It also tries to rewrite history by claiming that the $500,000 limit was not a ceiling at all, but simply “a discretionary guideline.” And it insists that OSM allowed the firms to exceed the maximum only for good reasons, even though SIGTARP pointed out that those reasons were not documented.

Like Feinberg, President Obama has tried to project an image of being tough on corporate abuses while repeatedly caving in behind the scenes. It remains to be seen whether Obama, facing pressures from the Occupy movement and the threat of losing his re-election bid, finally gets serious about prosecuting financial crime or continues the charade.

Tax Dodging Inc.

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Given that big business provides the bulk of the money pouring into the political system, it is no surprise that members of Congress and presidential contenders alike tend to espouse the idea that large corporations are overtaxed. This myth gets repeated despite all the evidence that blue chip companies find endless ways to pay much less than the statutory rate.

It is now more difficult for the tax avoidance deniers to spread their snake oil. Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy have just come out with a compelling study called Corporate Taxpayers & Corporate Tax Dodgers that examines the fine print of the financial statements of the country’s largest corporations and identifies scores of firms that fail to pay their fair share of the cost of government.

Looking at a universe of 280 companies, CTJ and ITEP find that over the past three years, 40 percent of them paid less than half of the statutory rate of 35 percent. Most of those paid what the study calls “ultra-low” rates of less than 10 percent. Thirty of the firms actually had negative tax rates, meaning that Uncle Sam was paying them for doing business. In dollar terms, the biggest recipients of tax subsidies over the three-year period were Wells Fargo ($18 billion), AT&T ($14.5 billion), Verizon Communications ($12.3 billion) and General Electric ($8.4 billion). The freeloaders had rates as low as minus 57.6 percent. You should read the study for yourself to get all the juicy details.

CTJ and ITEP have been putting out these bombshell reports periodically over the past three decades. The ones from the early 1980s drove the Reagan Administration crazy and paved the way for the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which reversed many of the corporate giveaways of the initial Reagan years.

It is tempting to think that this new report will subvert the current corporate tax relief movement, but that is a tall order. Part of the reason is that corporations, having bought much of the policymaking apparatus, have become much more brazen in their self-serving behavior.

Let’s take the case of Nabors Industries, the world’s largest oil and gas land drilling contractor.  Nabors was not eligible to be considered for the CTJ/ITEP study because it is headquartered in Bermuda. The company is not really Bermudan. Its principal offices are in Houston, but it re-incorporated itself in the island nation a decade ago for one simple reason: to escape paying U.S. federal income taxes (Bermuda imposes no such levies on corporations). It was part of a wave of companies that in the early 2000s underwent what were euphemistically called corporate inversions.

Critics called the moves “unpatriotic” or even “akin to treason,” but Nabors went ahead with its plan. There was an effort later in Congress to collect retroactive taxes from Nabors and a handful of other firms that had carried out inversions, but the move was blocked by New York Rep. Charles Rangel after Nabors CEO Eugene Isenberg made a $1 million contribution to a help build the Charles B. Rangel School of Public Service at the City College of New York. Rangel was subsequently charged with an ethics violation in connection with the contribution.

Nabors and Isenberg have been in the news again recently in connection with another scandal. Nabors announced that it was paying Isenberg, now 81 years old, $100 million to give up his post as chief executive. Although the payment is linked to a severance agreement, Isenberg is remaining with the company as chairman of the board. The situation was remarkable enough to merit a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, which is normally blasé about bloated executive pay.

Isenberg’s bonanza is the culmination of a series of outsized pay packages. In 2005, for instance, he received total compensation of more than $200 million. In 2008 his bonus alone was more than $58 million. In a non-binding vote earlier this year, a majority of Nabors shareholders disapproved the company’s executive pay policies.

It used to be that executive compensation was high in relation to worker pay rates put still a relatively small amount compared to revenue and profits in large companies.  That has been changing. The payouts to Isenberg have a significant impact on the firm’s bottom line. The $100 million being collected by Isenberg to give up his CEO job more than wipes out the $74 million in profits Nabors posted for the most recent quarter. Nabors, by the way, has disclosed that it has been investigated by the Justice Department for making foreign bribes.

As the Institute for Policy Studies showed in a report a couple of months ago, it is not unusual for major companies to pay their chief executives more than they send to the Treasury in taxes. Add to that the CTJ/ITEP findings and the behavior of firms like Nabors, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in many large corporations the dominant motivation is to enrich their principals, even if that means sidestepping obligations to shareholders, government and workers. In other words, big business is increasingly acting as little more than a vehicle for expanding the wealth of the 1%.

Shaming the Corporate Cheapskates

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Buried among the many features of the financial reform bill passed by Congress is a provision that could get you a raise. For this to happen, however, you have to work for a large company that is uncomfortable with having it made public how little it pays its workers.

Section 953 of the Dodd-Frank bill deals with disclosures relating to executive compensation, not only at banks but at all publicly traded companies. One of the ways it seeks to rein in out-of-control CEO pay is by requiring firms to reveal how the amount paid to the head of the company compares to that received by the typical employee. The theory is that having this information made public would give pause to grasping CEOs and soft-touch board compensation committees.

The total compensation of chief executives (along with that of the four other highest paid executives) is already disclosed through the annual proxy statements companies have to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (which makes them public through the EDGAR online system, where the documents are designated as DEF 14A). Yet there have been no requirements relating to the disclosure of how much is paid to the CEO’s underlings.

Section 953 fills this gap by instructing companies to include in their future proxies the median of the annual total compensation paid to all employees apart from the CEO. They also have to calculate the ratio of that median to the CEO’s total bounty.

Those ratios will be fascinating to see, but just as interesting will be the figures on non-CEO pay themselves. For the first time, we will be able to make direct comparisons of the broad compensation practices of different companies within given industries or across sectors. Getting official data from the companies themselves will be an improvement on the selective information that now gets posted on websites such as Glass Door.

There will be limitations, of course. Congress should have required the disclosure of data specifically on hourly workers rather than lumping them in with higher-paid professionals and executives. It would also be preferable to have separate numbers on domestic and foreign employees. And it is likely that companies will exclude low-paid temps and (often misclassified) independent contractors in making their calculations.

Yet this information could still be put to good use. Having clear, company-specific data could help stimulate a much-needed movement to address the problem of wage stagnation in the United States. The reality of that stagnation is quite evident from overall labor market data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but it would be much more effective to point the finger at individual companies with low medians and seek to shame them for failing to provide adequate compensation to their workers.

The ability of employers to keep wages low stems from two classic sources: low unionization and high unemployment. We know all too well the story of how anti-union animus on the part of employers has pushed the percentage of private sector workers with collective bargaining protections to historic postwar lows. To the extent they are able, unions target individual companies such as Wal-Mart, T-Mobile and (until it was finally organized) Smithfield Foods for denying their workers the right to representation.

Unions and other advocacy groups also criticize specific companies that engage in mass layoffs, especially when they seem to be undertaken mainly to impress Wall Street.

Yet we rarely hear criticisms of particular companies for failing to hire new workers when conditions seem to warrant it. The “economy” is assumed to be to blame for the high levels of joblessness afflicting us, not deliberate decisions by corporations to keep their payrolls artificially lean. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the absurd argument that overregulation is responsible for the anemic hiring situation. The Obama Administration responded by saying that weak consumer demand is the cause. Absent is the idea that corporations are failing in their responsibilities.

The unwillingness to chastise corporations is all the more bewildering in the face of growing evidence that business is hoarding cash instead of investing in job-creating ways. A front-page story in the Washington Post headlined COMPANIES PILE UP CASH BUT REMAIN HESITANT TO ADD JOBS notes that U.S. nonfinancial companies, buoyed by rising profits, are now sitting on $1.8 trillion in liquid reserves.

Why is there not more of an outcry about this behavior? Here’s an idea: pick companies with the most egregious combinations of rising profits and falling payrolls and press them to justify their boycott of U.S. workers. Once the new disclosure requirement kicks in, they could also be pushed to explain their low compensation levels. Business needs a strong reminder that it also exists to provide opportunities for people to earn a living.

Kowtowing to the Corporate Elite

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Two national political figures recently made statements about the pay practices of the big banks that did so much to create the current economic crisis. Can you tell which one was made by Barack Obama and which came from the mouth of Sarah Palin at the recent Tea Party convention?

Comment A: “While people on main street look for jobs, people on Wall Street, they’re collecting billions and billions in your bailout bonuses. Among the top 17 companies that received your bailout money, 92 percent of the senior officers and directors, they still have their good jobs. And everyday Americans are wondering, where are the consequences for them helping to get us into this worst economic situation since the great depression? Where are the consequences?”

Comment B (responding to a question about the $9 million in compensation received by Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and the $17 million received by Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase): “I know both those guys. They are very savvy businessmen. And I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system…$17 million is an extraordinary amount of money. Of course, there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don’t get to the World Series either, so I am shocked by that as well… I guess the main principle we want to promote is…that shareholders have a chance to actually scrutinize what CEOs are getting paid, and I think that serves as a restraint and helps align performance with pay.”

Sad to say, the lame second statement, which sounds like something composed by a not particularly imaginative flack for the financial industry, was made by President Obama in an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek. His comments caused such an initial uproar that the Administration’s Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki felt compelled to put up a post on the White House blog to try to clear up any “confusion” about what the standard bearer of the Democratic Party was saying.

If Psaki’s aim was to repair Obama’s progressive bona fides, she actually made matters worse by reiterating her boss’s previous comments about the glories of the free market and the wonders of individual wealth.

What is going on here? At a time when the public is outraged at the behavior of Big Finance — and when even a dunce such as Palin realizes she must condemn Wall Street greed — Obama decides to soft-pedal his criticism. Rather than acknowledging the damage done by the likes of Blankfein, he treats the matter as an intellectual exercise of fine-tuning pay to match performance. Wall Street pay is well-aligned with performance. The problem is that what’s been performed – the bad loans and toxic assets in the period leading up to the crisis and the stingy lending and bailout abuses in its aftermath – is good for the banks but disastrous for the economy as a whole.

Much of the Obama interview is an embarrassing obeisance to corporate power. The President seems to be apologizing for giving even the slightest the impression that he is anti-business. “Everything we have done over the last year,” he said, “and everything we intend to do over the next several years, I think is going to put American business on a stronger footing.” Asked why he does not have a “major CEO” in his cabinet, Obama replies: “We want and need more input from the corporate community.”

And he gushes over CEOs he admires. He lauds Fred Smith of FedEx as “thoughtful” and says that “sitting down and talking to him was incredibly productive and helps inform how we shape policy.” Hopefully, that does not include labor policy, given FedEx’s resistance to unionization and its abuse of the independent contractor classification. According to BusinessWeek, Obama had a staffer send a follow-up e-mail with a list of his other favorite CEOs, including Ivan Seidenberg of Verizon, another foe of unions.

A generous interpretation of Obama’s BusinessWeek interview is that he is simply trying to counteract overheated right-wing rhetoric depicting him as some kind of socialist. Yet he doesn’t seem to feel the same discomfort about the fact that, as Obama admits in the interview: “On the left we are perceived as being in the pockets of Big Business.”

He seems to regard that image, based on his mostly timorous approach to matters such as healthcare and financial reform, as a political benefit. During normal times in laissez-faire America, that might be the case. Yet this is an era in which an endless series of scandals and misbehavior have left the legitimacy of big business in tatters. Kowtowing to the corporate elite is bad politics and bad policy.

Needed: A New Contract with Big Finance

Friday, December 11th, 2009

banksA widely circulated rumor that Goldman Sachs executives were loading up on firearms to protect themselves against a populist uprising turned out to be spurious, but the leaders of the bank are clearly worried about rising discontent over Goldman’s prosperity amid continuing economic distress for most everyone else.

The announcement that Goldman’s top 30 executives will be denied cash bonuses this year is one of the most significant concessions Wall Street has ever made to public outrage. The members of Goldman’s management committee won’t be denied bonuses entirely but will receive them in the form of “shares at risk” – stock that cannot be sold for five years and is subject to recapture if the recipient engages in “materially improper risk analysis” or fails “sufficiently to raise concerns about risks.”

It is unclear whether these rules, which would require prudence rarely seen in the casino culture of investment banking, will be applied stringently. Goldman’s announcement that it will allow a shareholder advisory vote on compensation practices will make it a bit more difficult to flout the rules entirely.

While the ultimate impact of the Goldman move is uncertain, Britain and France are putting a real and immediate dent in bloated banker pay by imposing a 50 percent windfall tax on bonuses. Financiers in London and Paris are up in arms over the moves, with one investment banking chief telling the Financial Times that as a result of the tax the “contract between government and business is broken.”

And what exactly is that contract? As far as the financial sector is concerned, the traditional contract was that banks were expected to provide the capital needed for the “real” economy, and government did not regulate the market too strictly.  A decade ago, financiers got the regulatory regime loosened even more, which in the United States meant an end to the separation between commercial banking and investment banking. The new contract seemed to be that a fully liberated financial sector would magically create wealth to make up for the travails of the productive portion of the economy.

The crisis of the past two years put an end to that notion, and the contract we’ve been left with seems to be little more than an obligation by government to prop up a teetering financial sector with bailouts and access to virtually free funding. There is no quid pro quo imposed on bankers, who are allowed to deny credit to businesses and individuals alike and use their cheap money to rack up trading profits. And those profits serve mainly to pay for outsized bonuses for the bankers themselves.

It’s always been questionable whether big finance capital served a legitimate social purpose. Now it is clear that the big banks exist mainly for the enrichment of their own executives. About half of total revenue at these banks is set aside for compensation of executives and other employees.

That’s why Bank of America and Citigroup are so eager to repay their bailout money and free themselves from the constraints of the federal pay czar. And it’s why the big banks have felt no compunction about opposing the financial regulatory reforms now before Congress.

While financial industry lobbyists twist arms behind the scenes, Goldman is playing good cop with its bonus restrictions and the quasi-apology its CEO Lloyd Blankfein issued in November. Yet neither voluntary actions by the likes of Goldman nor modest regulatory reforms are sufficient. The current “contract” between big finance and not just government but all of society needs to be rewritten, and this time we shouldn’t let bank lawyers draft the document.

Exposing the Executive Pay of Beltway Bandits

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

ARRA logoThe recipient reporting system mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is designed to inform the public on how federal stimulus spending is creating jobs. The just-released first phase of that system still has a considerable number of bugs to work out with regard to its job numbers, but it also represents a new step forward in making the operations of federal contractors more transparent.

The rules governing Recovery Act reporting include a requirement (FAR 52.204-11) that certain contractors disclose the amount of compensation paid to their five highest paid executives. These include companies that receive $25 million or more in federal governments as long as federal contracts account for 80 percent or more of their total revenue.

Publicly traded companies already report this information to the Securities and Exchange Commission in their proxy statements, which are made available to the public. The Recovery Act rule is unusual in that it extends executive compensation reporting to privately held firms, which typically keep such information to themselves.

In the new Recovery Act contract data, several hundred contractors provided compensation information, including many that apparently were not required to do so. As shown in the table below, 14 contractors reported compensation in excess of $1 million for their top executive (not including obvious glitches such as a modest-sized excavating company in Washington State that entered $986 million in the compensation column).

Half of the contractors are part of publicly traded companies, and their compensation amounts match what was previously disclosed by those companies. The rest are privately held, meaning that this may well be the first time the pay of their top executives has been officially disclosed.

The most interesting of these is the huge consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton, which since fiscal year 2000 has been the recipient of more than $16 billion in federal contracts. It does business with many agencies, but it is especially close with the Pentagon. Last year it was the 22nd largest military contractor. The Recovery Act reports do not list executive names, but it likely that Booz Allen CEO Ralph W. Shrader was the one who was paid more than $8.4 million last year.

The Recovery Act does not include funding for military purposes, but it forces Pentagon contractors and other Beltway Bandits that happen to be privately held to reveal how richly they are rewarding their top executives with the help of taxpayer funds.

Top Compensation Amounts Reported by Recovery Act Federal Contractors

JOHNSON CONTROLS BUILDING AUTOMATION SYSTEMS LLC
$17,385,308

RAYTHEON TECHNICAL SERVICES COMPANY LLC
$15,056,151

BOOZ ALLEN HAMILTON INC.
$8,457,003

BALL AEROSPACE & TECHNOLOGIES CORP.
$8,111,298

ENERGYSOLUTIONS FEDERAL SERVICES, INC.
$6,336,752

ADVANCED CONSTRUCTION TECHNIQUES LTD
$2,724,660

DANYA INTERNATIONAL INC.
$2,363,143

ROLLS-ROYCE NORTH AMERICAN TECHNOLOGIES INC.
$2,025,860

WEST VALLEY ENVIRONMENTAL SERV
$1,955,909

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH CORPORATION
$1,471,745

ORBITAL SCIENCES CORPORATION
$1,448,752

STG, INC.
$1,201,762

PARSONS INFRASTRUCTURE & TECHNOLOGY GROUP INC.
$1,128,070

ENVIRONMENTAL CHEMICAL CORPORATION
$1,016,426

Source: Analysis of the combined state spreadsheets provided at the Recipient Reported tab here.

Notes:

The figure for Johnson Controls Building Automation Systems is apparently the compensation of Stephen A. Roell, CEO of the parent company Johnson Controls Inc., which is publicly traded and thus already reported the compensation of its top officers through its SEC filings. The figure above is the same as that reported for Roell in the company’s latest proxy statement.

The figure for Raytheon Technical Services is the same as that reported for parent Raytheon’s CEO William H. Swanson in the company’s latest proxy statement.

Booz Allen is privately held. Its CEO is Ralph W. Shrader.

The figure for Ball Aerospace is the same as that reported for parent Ball Corporation’s CEO R. David Hoover in the company’s latest proxy statement.

The figure for EnergySolutions Federal Services Inc. is the same as that reported for parent EnergySolutions’ chief financial officer Philip O. Strawbridge in the company’s latest proxy statement.

Advanced Construction Techniques Ltd is privately held. Its president is James Cockburn.

Danya International Inc. is privately held. Its CEO is Jeffrey A. Hoffman.

The figure for Rolls-Royce North American is roughly the same (after currency conversion) as that reported for parent Rolls-Royce PLC chief executive Sir John Rose in the company’s annual report.

West Valley Environmental Services LLC describes itself as “a newly-formed company comprised of four companies – URS Washington Division, Jacobs Engineering Group, Environmental Chemical Corporation (ECC), and Parallax/Energy Solutions – with extensive experience conducting environmental cleanup at Department of Energy (DOE) sites across the United States.” Its compensation figure above is the same as that reported in the proxy statement of URS Corporation for URS Washington Division President Thomas H. Zarges.

Scientific Research Corporation is privately held. Its CEO is Michael Watt.

The figure for Orbital Sciences is the same as that reported by the company for CEO David W. Thompson in the company’s latest proxy statement.

STG Inc. is privately held. Its CEO is Simon S. Lee.

Parsons Infrastructure is a unit of privately held Parsons Corporation, whose CEO is Charles L. Harrington.

Environmental Chemical Corporation (which seems to prefer being called simply ECC) is privately held. Its CEO is Manjiv Vohra.

UPDATE: On October 30 Recovery.gov published a revision of the contractor data that fixed various formatting problems and added names to the executive compensation figures. For more details, see here.