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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chairman Waxman’s CEO Compensation PR Stunt

Next month, Congress will be schlepping in the former chief executives of several financial services firms damaged by the subprime crisis to question them about their compensation packages. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has sent letters to Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide Financial, Charles Price, former CEO of Citigroup and Stanley O'Neil, former CEO of Merrill Lynch. According to reports Chairman Waxman intends to ask them why they "stand to collect tens of millions of dollars in severance payments and other compensation," even as their current and former companies are losing billions of dollars in the subprime mortgage meltdown.

It's certainly understandable to perceive these golden parachutes as obscene. Mr. Mozilo is supposedly getting more than $110 million on top of the $47 million he got last year, while Countrywide Financial erased billions of dollars in shareholders equity. Mr. Prince is allegedly getting more than $29 million in "accumulated benefits" and supposedly even received a bonus for 2007. Mr. O'Neal walked away with more than $161 million in "accumulated benefits." Citigroup and Merrill together have written down more than the GDP of most third world countries.

By any measure, paying these men hundreds of millions of dollars for their recent performance is not justified – which is exactly why Mr. Waxman is calling in the wrong people. It should instead be the corporate board members overseeing the compensation committees that should explain the payouts. Maybe executive compensation consultants hired by corporate boards should face questioning too, such as Hewitt Associates of Lincolnshire, Illinois, and Mercer Human Resources, which were involved in the decision to give Dick Grasso over $100 million. The ones who accepted authorized pay shouldn't be flogged.

The individuals Chairman Waxman should have sent letters to include Harley Snyder, CEO of HSC, Inc., John Finnegan, Chief Executive Officer of The Chubb Corporation and Alan J.P. Belda, Chairman and CEO of Alcoa, who chaired the compensation committees of Countrywide, Merrill Lynch, and Citigroup, respectively. Hopefully not lost on Chairman Waxman would be the fact that all these men hold the title of CEO. In this elite fraternity, sometimes one hand washes the other. For example, Mr. O'Neil was just named to the board of Alcoa. It would of course be too obvious of a conflict for Mr. Prince to serve on Alcoa's board, so Mr. Belda got the next best thing. The point is, those holding the power don't have the motivation to change the status quo.

Chairman Waxman needs to get to the source of the problem which lies squarely with the board of directors and compensation committee members. Not holding them accountable is like patching a leaky roof with duct tape every time it rains. Unfortunately, without their presence next month's hearings are the equivalent to nothing much more than a witch hunt wrapped-up in a PR stunt.

If Chairman Waxman was truly interested in relating compensation to performance, why stop at publicly held companies? He should call in sports stars like Alex Rodriguez, Carl Pavano, and Albert Belle, notoriously over-paid underperformers. I know what you're thinking. Congress holding hearings with professional baseball players sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?

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