Treasury's Pay Restrictions: a Tale of Two Accounts

Last Updated Oct 15, 2008 12:36 PM EDT

Ever feel you are living in a parallel universe?

I do, especially when I read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times on the same day.

Consider two very different headlines on the same timely topic:

"Lower Salaries Could Cost Wall Street" (Wall Street Journal).

"Banks' Bailout Unlikely to Crimp Executive Pay" (The New York Times).

Both stories deal with the U.S. Department of the Treasury outlines for executive compensation, golden parachutes, taxes and the like that will kick in if a bank participates in the Troubled Asset Auction Program (TARP), part of the $700 billion bailout called for by the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act.
These include:

  • If the Department of the Treasury buys distressed assets at an auction from a firm that has sold more than $300 million in assets, executive compensation for each of the five top-ranking executives in that firm (the CEO, the CFO and the next three in line) will not have any salaries more than $500,000 deductible for tax purposes.
  • If an executive has a golden parachute and leaves the firm for any reason other than retirement, that golden parachute is levied a 20 percent excise tax.
  • Clawbacks apply to the compensation of any executive whose work results in any restatement of finances that are shown to be materially false.
  • Incentives would be barred for "unnecessary and excessive" risks.
These should be straightforward enough. But not to the Journal and the Times.

The Times reports experts stating that the $500,000 will be ignored and that banks will be willing to eat any extra tax hikes to satisfy their top execs. They say that each time there are attempts to clean up compensation, such as after the dot.com boom, executives simply move to another area of compensation. Instead of expecting big tech-era stock options, for example, they go for restricted stock.

The Journal sees the class as half empty. Their story whines that these new restrictions will hinder Wall Street from hiring "top talent." Plus, the Journal quotes experts as saying that the restrictions are hard to interpret.

So, let's add this up. The restrictions will keep "top talent" out. Well, I thought that Wall Street already had "top talent," at least according to much of the fawning coverage by the business news media over the years. Maybe after all of these spectacular flame-outs, these folks were not really top talent after all. Given the mess, one wonders what top talent is lying in wait out there to get their chance.