The pay games CEOs play

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Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a leader in Senate financial issues, thinks that regulators should no longer play along with the executive’s game, and fired a 6 page epistle August 13 to the Wall Street police demanding the rules to implement Dodd-Frank’s executive pay sections be put into place. Public Citizen agrees and seconds his call for action.

In its 19th annual survey of CEO pay, IPS found that last year 26 firms paid their CEOs more than the firms paid Uncle Sam in taxes. The list exceeds the 25 firms IPS identified in last year’s report. Among the companies: Citigroup and AIG, which owe their very existence to taxpayer bailouts.

Rich compensation plans encouraged bank executives to make risky bets and choices for their institutions. And this year’s IPS pay survey shows that the CEOs haven’t changed their game.

Bonus boom, bank bust, bailout. Repeat.

Sen. Brown, who chairs a Senate Banking Committee subcommittee, wants to end this vicious cycle. Congress approved the law to accomplish this end more than two years ago. However, in part due to Wall Street’s formidable Washington lobby, regulators have failed to implement key provisions. Section 956 authorizes the regulators to block pay that leads to “inappropriate” risks.

Sen. Brown’s letter to six financial regulatory agencies documents past and continuing pay-related problems. For eight years leading to the financial crash of 2008, the top five executives of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers received a collective $2.4 billion in bonuses before crashing their firms. In the letter Sen. Brown notes that, “these compensation arrangements provided top bank officials with incentives to seek short-term profits while creating a risk of large long-term losses.”

Even now, misaligned bonus incentives likely motivated JPMorgan’s chief investment office trader Bruno Michel Iskil, also known as the ‘London Whale,’ whose choices led to at least $5.8 billion in losses for the company. His risky trades causeda 20 percent decline in the value of the company. In addition, the recent LIBOR fraud, Sen. Brown writes, “shows that derivatives traders at British bank Barclays” manipulated the rates because “presumably [their] bonuses [were] based upon such figures.”

The critical executive pay reforms contained in Dodd-Frank to decouple risk and executive compensation are languishing in the rulemaking process. This stalled rule should receive congressional attention and immediate agency action.

Let the games be done.

Gilbert is the Acting Director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, Naylor is the Financial Advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch