- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — When Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executives and shareholders gather Friday morning for the company’s annual meeting, the room might look a little like a house of worship.

A coalition of religious groups headed by a nun, a priest and the CEO of a Jewish organization will be there to press Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to evaluate whether it’s paying executives too much. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein will have no choice but to listen. The group has won a coveted spot on the annual meeting agenda.

The religious contingent also wants the investment bank to evaluate the pay discrepancy between high-paid workers and those at the bottom. And they’re asking the company to explain something many shareholders want to know: Why compensation for Goldman’s top five executives rose to $69.6 million in 2010, even as profits and revenues have declined.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation, which it says is rooted in Jewish tradition, along with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Philadelphia and the Benedictine Sisters of Mount Angel, have introduced a shareholder resolution that asks the investment bank to evaluate whether its compensation packages for senior executives are excessive and should be modified. The resolution calls on Goldman to publicly report its findings by Oct. 1.

Sister Nora Nash of the Sisters of Saint Francis said the group’s mission is primarily about getting better returns. Her order of nuns and the other religious groups are long-term shareholders of Goldman; their retirement savings are at stake when outsized pay packages limit dividends or growth. (The groups declined to say how many shares of Goldman they owned, but most are held through investments in various funds.)

“When we see CEOs earning over 300 times more than the typical worker, it raises serious questions for shareholders on whether they are really [that] valuable,” said Sister Nash, who has been a nun for 50 years.

As evidence, she and other members of the religious coalition point to a new study from the Council of Institutional Shareholders and a review by Kenneth Feinberg, who served as the White House’s special master on Wall Street pay. The studies show financial-services companies have “overpaid” executives and that high compensation damages shareholders because it leaves less money for other investments and dividend payments.

Sister Nash will make a presentation at the annual meeting to try to win shareholder support for the resolution. Shareholders can vote on the measure Friday. Company officials tried to have the proposal removed from the agenda, but the Securities and Exchange Commission — which approves such exclusions — rebuffed the effort.

It might be hard to ignore nuns and priests at a shareholder meeting of an investment bank, but what matters to shareholders is the substance of the proposal, experts say.

For the past several years, Goldman has been the target of public outrage over its outsized compensation for top executives. That anger was fueled by a record $68 million bonus for Mr. Blankfein in 2007, just before the financial crisis began. Last year, Goldman was unsuccessfully sued by some shareholders who said compensation levels were too high at the firm.