image description

Wall Street Double Whammy

by Michael W. Stocker
Eyes On Wall Street |

On October 22 Wall Street received a double whammy with the release of plans by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department to aggressively regulate pay practices at banks. While both approaches capitalize on public wrath erupting over the announcement of record-setting year-end bonuses at top financial firms, they differ significantly in scope and effect.

The Federal Reserve's new compensation proposal, outlined in its October 22 press release, has the broadest sweep, covering thousands of banks, including U.S. subsidiaries of foreign institutions. While the proposed rules would not directly regulate pay, they would include demands that firms take into account losses incurred by employees, make pay tied to longer-term performance, and pay out over longer stretches of time. The only real teeth in this regulation, however, is the Fed's right to veto compensation plans it does not like, and to require that management come up with better approaches.

The Treasury plan is more limited in scope, but has a much more immediate impact. The plan, outlined in an October 22 press release titled The Special Master for TARP Executive Compensation Issues First Rulings, applies only to the beneficiaries of bailout funds under the TARP program. It attempts to better align pay with longer-term performance, but takes a more direct approach than the Fed. Treasury official Kenneth Feinberg, the Obama administration's "pay czar," slashed cash compensation, increased stock awards, and insisted that stock compensation be held for two to four years. Salaries paid to the highest-earning executives at seven companies getting exceptional federal aid will also be capped at $500K, while the group's total pay level, annualized, will be 50% lower than last year.

Not surprisingly, the financial services industry is not happy with either approach. Although the sector benefited from last year's massive infusion of taxpayer capital, banks are bridling at the suggestion that regulators-and the taxpayers they protect-should have any role in reforming the institutions that they helped save.