Monday, May 09, 2005

Pigs At The Trough

William F. Buckley wrote a delightfully acerbic piece recently in National Review about the outrage of executive compensation and the implications for our system of capitalism. Delving into the compensation of Viacom executive Tom Freston, who received a $16 million bonus last year while Viacom's stock fell 18%, WFB writes:
Mr. Freston is based in New York. But from time to time, business requires him to be in Los Angeles — where, as it happens, he also has a home. On those nights does he take hotel rooms? Ample hotel rooms, understand. No. He just charges the company what he thinks is appropriate to pay him for using his own home. In 2004, this amounted to $43,000. He is evidently a man with simpler habits than the Los Angeles-based Mr. Moonves's. He does the same kind of thing, he has his own home in New York, but what he charged the company for the nights he spent in New York was $105,000.
And the money quote:
That money was taken, directly, from company shareholders. But the loss, viewed on a larger scale, is a loss to the community of people who believe in the capitalist free-market system. Because extortions of that size tell us, really, that the market system is not working — in respect of executive remuneration. What is going on is phony. It is shoddy, it is contemptible, and it is philosophically blasphemous.
Bingo. What's incredible is that the examples WFB cites are far from extraordinary. Because of my job, I've had a front row seat to these ongoing outrages for many years, and some of what I see is stunning. One very small company I follow announced a "stock buyback" of 2 million shares; the buyback took place, with the company buying 400,000 shares from the public and 1.6 million shares from the personal account of the CEO, who then put the proceeds of that sale into his own wallet. The same company also announced a "cash dividend" to be paid to all stockholders. The largest stockholder? You guessed it--the CEO, who owned about 50% of the stock and thus received the majority of the dividend straight from the company's coffers. All this, despite a stock price that had declined about 95% from its high of the past few years.

This is just one company, and Buckley writes about only a few executives. There are far more examples of similar behavior by the most "respected" executives at the most "blue chip" companies.

One of the essential facets of capitalism is trust. Capital markets, the counter-party system and free trade cannot exist in an ethical vacuum; there must be an underlying pillar of public trust for the system to function effectively and to be sustainable. Trust is hard-won and easily lost; it springs from an underlying atmosphere of ethics, common sense, and proportion regarding issues such as executive compensation and corporate conduct. Without trust, a nation's economic system falters, its citizens become cynical and jaded, and its enemies gain fuel.

I've never been fan of government regulation in most areas, and that goes double for any increased regulation. But our financial system--which includes publicly-traded companies and the financial markets--is an exception for me. The abuses have become so egregious and so systemic that I believe they pose as much of a threat to our economy and way of life as terrorism does. Indeed, the terrorists would love nothing more than for our financial system to implode because of our own greed and apathy.

We need to make a distinction between what is illegal, and what's legal but morally bankrupt. In the case of the former, some of the blame for lax enforcement must fall on the Clinton administration; for eight years, the SEC was emasculated, starved of funds, and essentially told to hear no evil/see no evil so the stock market could rise unhindered. The Bush administration has certainly put more of a priority on identifying and prosecuting white-collar crime, but could do far more. It speaks volumes that the most important enforcement activity has come from New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat. While he's motivated partially by political ambition, Spitzer recognizes the threat to our financial system and is acting appropriately--in the absence of a vigorous SEC, NASD, and Justice Department, and to the chagrin of Wall Street's laissez-faire pollyannas.

But the regulators can only act on what's illegal. The merely immoral requires grass-roots outrage in order for change to occur, and we haven't seen that yet. After the technology bubble burst a few years ago and people discovered how and why they'd lost nest eggs and retirements, I thought we would see townsfolk gathering in the village square with pitchforks. That didn't happen. Maybe the pain never got bad enough. But if and when we see another major market decline, gluttonous immorality will likely become legislated illegality.

Since Wall Street and our corporate community have proven themselves unencumbered by conscience, that wouldn't be such a bad thing. I just wish the public didn't need the pain as a wake-up call.

120 Comments:

Blogger DrDave said...

TCR:

I don't understand why it is (philosophically) necessary to distinguish between what is illegal and what is morally bankrupt. It would seem to me that if it's morally bankrupt and done at the expense of the shareholders of a public company, it OUGHT to be illegal.

And you contradict yourself: On the one hand you applaud (albeit weakly) the Bush administration for putting a greater priority on id'ing and prosecuting white collar crime and in the next sentence, you applaud Spitzer for his vigilence--in the absence of a vigorous SEC, NASD, and Justice Department. Well, if the SEC, NASD and Justice Department lack vigor, why are you applauding the Bush Admin. at all?

You are right, though: The people should be out with pitchforks but the wake up call will not come from our elected officials: they have far too vested an interest in maintaining the status quo.

Dave

5/09/2005 9:11 PM  
Blogger The Cunning Realist said...

Thanks for the comments. I think I was pretty clear: enforcement has been better under Bush than under Clinton, but could be far better. If that were not the case, an understaffed, underfunded and overworked New York State Democrat would not be the highest-profile regulator in the nation.

There is a difference between emasculation and lack of vigor....

5/09/2005 9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I've never been fan of government regulation in most areas, and that goes double for any increased regulation. But our financial system--which includes publicly-traded companies and the financial markets--is an exception for me."

Interesting. A friend of mine who is a septic system designer says the exact same thing - but about septic design.

Maybe more things need rules than you think. Maybe people try and game *every* system.

5/09/2005 9:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't even read about exec compensation anymore. As an investor and employee I find it sickening. At the senior level compensation is largely a function of executive arrogance and board compliance and is totally unrelated to performance. This is not capitalism; it's cronyism. It turns me away from the stock market and encourages me to act cynically at work--focus on managing up and not on creating shareholder value.

5/09/2005 10:10 PM  
Blogger Monk-in-Training said...

I belive it was said somewhere..You shall reap what you sow..

5/09/2005 10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that regulations are to corporations as laws are to men. And, considering the much greater impact of Corps on civil societies much more important.
BTW TCR, have you seen "The Corporation" by any chance?

5/09/2005 11:35 PM  
Anonymous Grass Root said...

Thank you for calling it financial terrorism.
It started in California with the brown-outs. The weather hadn't changed, no power station was down, there was just suddenly not enough energy. Electricity cost more because it could, gas cost more because it can.
Am I the only person aware that the middle class has been under seige for the last 5 to 6 years? Once I was securely employed with health benefits and a 401k, now I live paycheck to paycheck, my children are uninsured and the retirement money is gone. And I'm not alone. I think that a strong middle class provides a financial equlibrium that keeps the US economy from being a third world economy, but there just isn't enough money to support a middle class and and the class fantasies of the elite uber-rich. We are regressing back to a 19th century class society and I don't think that the neocons are going to rest until the Irish are back in the kitchen!
I'm plenty outraged - I have worked hard and there is no reason for my family to be living the way they are. I don't worry about planes flying into buildings, I worry about keeping my family in a house, I'm terrified! Financial terrorism describes it very well - Thank you!

5/10/2005 12:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why didn't the masses gather in the square with pitch forks at the ready? Because 99% of the public, and 95% of those with stock or mutual funds, never really understood why stock prices went so high or fell so low. Why? Because the mainstream media - when anything was said at all -buried the story (told in equivocal terms) in the back pages.

5/10/2005 1:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nell Minow of The Corporate Library has done a good job documenting executive and board lack of fiduciary responsbility.

A great article in CFO magazine, "The Prime of Ms. Nell Minow" at http://www.cfo.com/article.cfm/3008442/c_3046587?f=insidecfo

Two snippets: "We have seen widespread excessive executive pay, widespread poor financial reporting, and widespread neglectful boards."

"At Tyco, Dennis Kozlowski did not ask for a contract until 2001. The contract he gave to his board, which they signed, provided that conviction of a felony was not grounds for termination. A better board might have said, 'Dennis, we're sorry: Are you planning to knock over a bank? Is there something you want to tell us?'"

Mark Cuban's blog had several entries on his experiences with Wall Street. He recommends the book, "The Number".

I don't believe individual investors will do much ever (Look - if the Enron employees didn't do anything after losing their retirements after Lay gave his cheerleading speeches, I think corporations can do almost anything to employees and investors). There are a lot of good, honest, hardworking people that try to play by the rules; save, work, contribute to their community, raise a family and they aren't into the games of Wall Street. It is unfortunate corporate America has decided to mess with these peoples' lives. Our leadership lives in a world that the means justify the ends. Individuals are either to ignorant, burnt out, trusting, or happy to win at other's expense. I'd like to see the big money guys have pride in their profession and do more, like Vanguard, Fidelity, TIA-CREF, CalPers, etc.

Catch the Enron movie, "The smartest guys in the room", or http://atomfilms.shockwave.com/afassets/flash/enron.swf

Regarding Les Moonves charging CBS for staying at his home on the other coast, doesn't that effectively make his home a rental property and those monies are income subject to taxation.

Shouldn't the SEC be apolitical and do its job independent of party? Granted I suppose one could give lip service for a strong SEC but simply not fund it. The media reports the first part, and we never hear about the second part.

5/10/2005 1:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks TCR great post.

5/10/2005 9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every year about this time ExxonMobil asks me not to vote for shareholder proposals. Every year I read them and generally vote yes on all but one or two. How many shareholders get their ballots and don't bother to read the proposals, just check the box that in essence says "we know more than you so just shut up and do as we say." One of these day I am going to vote just the opposite of what they want.

5/10/2005 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost agree with what you said. However, the slam against the Clinton Administration is not fair considering that a Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich was far more culpable. As I recall Clinton's bid to hold CEOs accountable was negated by that Republican Congress which I helped elect.

Now, I'm an old school Republican who's had enough of the NeoCons and Religious nuts that have taken over our party. And I've felt myself pushed over to the left over the last several years and I'm proud of that. I do not want to be associated with the folks currently running the show. So, when I make these comments about Clinton, it's hopefully without ideological blinders. Clinton wasn't the greatest president we've had but he's certainly a "big time" improvement over either of the Bush offerings. The big business/big oil pandering needs to stop or it will tear us apart.

5/10/2005 10:35 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

I agree with everything that you and Buckley say, except for one point: Why does prove the failure of capitalism and the free market? To me, it proves the success of capitalism, which encourages everyone to make as much money as they possibly can. Greed is good, right? Why else do we deify the filthy rich (Donald Trump, Jack Welch)?

If you don't like the way a company is run, don't buy its stock. Better yet, don't buy its products. Eventually, they'll get the message. Or they won't care. Either way, it would be what you would expect from a free market system.

5/10/2005 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I the only person aware that the middle class has been under seige for the last 5 to 6 years?

No, It's been 25 - 30 years. It's just that some of those years our representivives in Washington have been on our side of the baricades.

5/10/2005 11:26 AM  
Blogger David Studhalter said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5/10/2005 11:40 AM  
Blogger David Studhalter said...

Hear! Hear! (Mostly; I too think the dig at Clinton is unjustified, when you consider the differential between Clinton's enforcement and that of either Bush or Reagan).

I note, too, (continuing a theme) how it reflects an increasingly blurred distinction between traditional fiscal conservatism and ethics-based liberalism. (The use of the same title for this post as one of Arianna Huffintgon's books is no coincidence, I assume). I was just reading a passage in Robert Reich's Reason which makes almost exactly the same points, with very similar examples. Reich also points out that people like William Bennett, who love to crow about the decline in moral values in America, would do well to take a look in the boardroom a little more often, and leave the bedroom alone.

5/10/2005 11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with the Bush administration is that it keeps calling the Key Lays and Bernie Ebbers of the world "a few bad apples," a frequently used term in Bushworld:

Torture? "A Few Bad Apples."

Misleading Congress? "A Few Bad Apples."

Corporate Greed? "A Few Bad Apples."

After so many bad apples, I'm beginning to suspect that the orchard is the problem.

5/10/2005 12:16 PM  
Anonymous ewk said...

isn't one of the biggest issues the incestuousness of Boards? Essentially these guys all serve on each other boards and rubber stamp pretty much wahtever the CEO wants until something really drastic happens.

5/10/2005 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer is board independence and oversight. They should answer to the stock holders but in general they are controlled by the CEOs. Ideally these changes would be forced on companies by the market, and they might yet if we have a economic crisis. However, we might need to have the SEC force the changes. You said that capitalism is based on trust, but actually I think that it is just the opposite. Since we know that people cannot be trusted, we set up systems that force compainies to accurately report on their fiscal conditions. Or at least that is what we should be trying to do.

5/10/2005 2:38 PM  
Anonymous ctbill said...

This issue makes my blood boil.

5/10/2005 4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The change in SEC leadership from Clinton-appointee Arthur Levitt to Bush's (first) appointee Harvey Pitt hardly represented a step forward for shareholder rights. Levitt was one of the most thoughtful and reform-oriented commissioners ever, while Pitt was widely recognized as a shill for the (now) traditional exploitation of public company treasuries by entrenched, self-serving CEOs. Nevertheless, despite Levitt's sound policy suggestions, a lot of bad corporate behavior went down under his watch. But Pitt only exacerbated the Commission's enforcement and image problems, and at exactly the wrong moment in history. At the same moment, Bush resisted Sarbanes-Oxley -- even after an unprecedeented series of public company frauds -- and finally had to be politically cornered into signing Sarbanes-Oxley and replacing Pitt with Donaldson.

An appeal to "ethics" or "trust" will never prove a wholly satisfactory answer to the problem of absurd, unchecked, and inefficient allocation of shareholder assets to the very top of the corporate totem pole. Nor does enforcement of existing laws offer much relief. Structural changes are needed. CEO's walk off with vast, unearned chunks of the corporate treasury because our corporations laws never force the CEO's into a legitimate negotiation with all the other stakeholders. The laws do not force boardroom compensation committees into a truly adversarial (i.e., solely pro-shareholder) position in the negotiation of compensation. And so, in the end, the long run economic efficiency that would be expected from adversarial, free market negotiations -- CEO compensation packages corresponding only to the marginal benefits of CEO contributions -- is lost.

5/10/2005 4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

United is about to strike. Did we bail out the airlines once or twice?

The particular slap in the face from the folks running the airlines is when they secured their own benefits while asking employees to take cuts; effectively taxpayers subsized and secured executive compensation. But are we genuinely safer?

Top execs still got stay-on bonuses. When asked about this they said it was to keep top people from leaving. But where would they go; it wasn't as if the airline industry is a growth industry dying for employees.

In 2003 American Airlines fired CEO got a $8.2M exit payment; plus a guaranteed annual pension of $80k.

Why doesn't a company offer the same benefits to all employees, including top mgmt? Sure, pay them more in wages, but pension, health care, and all the rest the same. It seems like execs get to keep their defined benefit plans, and everyone else gets defined contribution plans.

Colleges put out a lot of MBA's. One would think that the supply of executive-material is great, so why doesn't that drive compensation down?

5/10/2005 5:11 PM  
Blogger Tayefeth said...

Why does prove the failure of capitalism and the free market? To me, it proves the success of capitalism, which encourages everyone to make as much money as they possibly can.

First, the free market relies in part on the free flow of reliable information. If you don't know (and can't find out) how good a product is, you can't make an informed decision on buying it. If you can't rely on a company's word about verifiable information like how much its executives are paid, how can you rely on that company for any other information?

Second, the wholesale defrauding of employees in order to jack up profits for top management proves that unfettered capitalism is no way to run a society. We need to regulate business because the US (and the world) is more than just an economy of frictionless cogs.

5/12/2005 4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

we have reached the point that this capitalism is in fact "fascism". It looks like the corporations exist solely for the benefits of its executives, financed by the shareholders and serviced by its employees. And the present administration is not only supporting this trend, it is encouraging it by cutting their taxes and rewarding the inexperienced. How long this is going
to last? only if "en masse" dissent by the people takes place. As it is the triple State dificits and the trillions of dollars the public owe to the banks are aggravating the economy, the middle class has almost vanished, the workers are working long hours for so little and have practically no time to even complain. The scheme has been laid out for a complete take over of the "old USA", we will be marching pretty soon towards a third world country. The future is bleak.

5/13/2005 4:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is the mantra that "Capitilism equals Democracy" never ever questioned?

Capitilism is about increasing the concentration of influence and wealth into the hands of a few unelected and unaccountable people who wield enormous power over thier fellow citizens

Democracy is about the public examination of someones background, competence and ethics to determine if that person should be allowed to have any power over his fellow citizens.

Capitilism has no moral core or ethical standerds.... it is debarred by law from haveing any.... the fiduciary duty of any corporation is to maximise profits for it's owners.... not act in the interests, short or long term, of the community or nation in which it operates.

Does anyone seriously think that Ken Lay would have have been elected in a democracy?

It takes a capitilist based society to put people like him in charge.

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Realistic Expectations : No matter how wonderful and flawless your mate seems, no one is perfect.

Go on a Date : Especially for married couples, but even for some dating couples, start dating.

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I Forgive You : If something has happened in your relationship causing the trust to waiver, you will have many things to work through.

Day at the Movies : Have a movie marathon some rainy or cold Saturday.

Dinner by the Fire : Order in some of your favorite food, open a bottle of fine wine, light some candles.

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Keep in Touch : It is important that you keep in touch with each other often.

Motivate Each Other : Find a mutual incentive that will motivate both of you.

Adore your Mate : Appreciate and love them for the person they are.

Make Eye Contact : Think back to the first time you saw your now mate.

Respect Privacy : When two people come together in a relationship, each person has their own set of history.

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Cuddle Time : When couples first start dating, cuddling is usually a part of their everyday existence.

Make the Women Feel Good : Just like men, woman love feeling good about themselves.

Showing Love : Although hearing the words, I love you is special and important.

Realistic Expectations : No matter how wonderful and flawless your mate seems, no one is perfect.

Go on a Date : Especially for married couples, but even for some dating couples, start dating.

Control Your Anger : Every relationship has difficulties, and sometimes, there can be some intense arguments.

I Forgive You : If something has happened in your relationship causing the trust to waiver, you will have many things to work through.

Day at the Movies : Have a movie marathon some rainy or cold Saturday.

Dinner by the Fire : Order in some of your favorite food, open a bottle of fine wine, light some candles.

A Day at the Spa : Show your appreciation for the hard work that takes.

Keep in Touch : It is important that you keep in touch with each other often.

Motivate Each Other : Find a mutual incentive that will motivate both of you.

Adore your Mate : Appreciate and love them for the person they are.

Make Eye Contact : Think back to the first time you saw your now mate.

Respect Privacy : When two people come together in a relationship, each person has their own set of history.

Be Flexible : There will be times when your mate is right and times when you are right.

Encourage Friendships : Men, unlike women, have a more difficult time in developing close friendships with other men.

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