- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Big bank executives are well on the way to cashing in on lucrative stock options that have soared in value as a result of their federal bailout.

The powerful rally in bank stocks since March, spawned by federal bailout efforts, has sent the value of stock options given to top executives at some of the healthiest big banks — including JP Morgan, Wells Fargo and American Express — surging nearly $90 million since the beginning of the year.

Combined with news last month of record bonuses slated on Wall Street, executive pay analysts say the development demonstrates that the “heads I win, tails you lose” culture of Wall Street pay remains alive and well despite the severe recession and a sharp backlash in public opinion against banks.

Nell Minow of the Corporate Library, a corporate research group, said the continued big earnings and pay at bailed-out banks is feeding a sense of injustice and outrage among ordinary citizens who are feeling the brunt of the financial crisis.

“The credibility of capitalism … is tremendously deteriorated right now and the only way to rebuild that brand is to make people confident that when they put a dollar into the system, it will be treated fairly,” she said. “Pay that is out of whack with performance … is a symptom of bad corporate governance, bad economic judgment, but it’s also the disease.”

Graef Crystal, an executive compensation consultant, said that even in a country where top corporate executives typically reap more than 100 times the earnings of average workers, Wall Street pay practices are outrageously out of line.

“Wall Street pay needs an extreme makeover,” he said. “Despite all the negative publicity and even death threats received by the CEOs … we find them planning a return to the big bonus culture of yesteryear.”

Attempts by Congress and the Obama administration to limit executive pay have not changed the financial culture, he said. The pay limits primarily pinch the chief executives at the two banks that got the biggest bailouts — Citigroup and Bank of America — by limiting their chief executives’ pay to $500,000 a year and subjecting executive pay packages to review by the administration’s “pay czar,” Kenneth Feinberg.

Healthier banks such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have gone out of their way to escape federal controls by returning their bailout funds, and have been leading the parade in the return to exorbitant pay. JP Morgan’s top five executives are on track to earn more than $20 million from their stock options this year, according to a study released Tuesday by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Wells Fargo, whose top five executives are due to earn $6 million from their stock options this year, on Tuesday became the latest to announce plans to escape federal restrictions on pay by returning $25 billion in bailout funds the bank received last fall. Even Bank of America reportedly hopes to return the $20 billion of extra bailout funds it got in January that made it subject to the particularly strict compensation rules laid out by the administration.

American Express Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Chenault stands to earn the most of all the bank executives from stock options granted this year — nearly $18 million, according to the institute study. The stock options of CIT executives, by contrast, are worthless because the bank’s stock price has fallen 38 percent since the beginning of the year, the group said.

A separate study by Mr. Crystal of executives with outstanding stock options granted before 2009 found that Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein have older stock options that have lost considerable value and if cashed in today would reap less than $50,000 for each of them. But Mr. Crystal projects that with bank stocks on the rise again, those executives likely will earn considerable money even on their “underwater” options if they hold on to them for a while longer.

By contrast, Capital One CEO Richard Fairbank, who is the “all-time options champion” because he is paid entirely in stock options, Mr. Crystal said, is sitting on a batch of options that are totally worthless. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit’s options also are worthless, he said, and have no prospects for gaining in value in the months ahead.

The resumption of big pay windfalls for some bank executives has prompted outrage among taxpayers and put pressure on Congress to ratchet up the restrictions on pay put into place under the bank bailout program. The House last month passed legislation enabling bank regulators to curb excessive executive pay and giving all corporate shareholders a “say on pay” in the future.

“It’s a shame to have Congress getting involved in compensation issues, but when you have a crop of CEOs who think they deserve eight-figure salaries for not doing their jobs then we probably do need some regulation,” said Harlan Platt, a finance professor at Northeastern University College of Business Administration.

He said it will not be easy to change the culture on corporate boards of directors where generous pay plans presented by executives are usually rubber-stamped.

“The problem is at least in part that the compensation committee at many firms is controlled by other CEOs who expect the same generosity when their firm’s committee meets,” he said. “That’s sort of like inviting a dark-alley mugger to keep a watchful eye over your piggy bank. It’s not going to be there when you return.”

Mr. Crystal said his own attempts to suggest changes in Wall Street’s entrenched pay practices have fallen flat.

A typical Wall Street brokerage gives about half its profits back in bonuses to the employees that helped them earn it, with the rest going to shareholders, he said. That is far more generous than the pay practices at other U.S. corporations, and explains why many of the brightest and most talented workers in the country seek their fortunes on Wall Street, he said.

Mr. Crystal attributes Wall Street’s excesses to its freewheeling “deal-making” culture. Wall Street firms insist they have to continue to offer generous bonuses and compensation packages to keep their most talented people. The result has been a bidding war for top talent that keeps going even when the economy and financial markets are down.

Top Wall Street traders openly complain and threaten to leave if they don’t get top dollar. Despite the strict limits on Mr. Pandit’s pay this year, for example, a top trader in Citigroup’s highly profitable energy trading unit made headlines last month by insisting that he is entitled to a $100 million bonus.

Wall Street traders are like “mercenaries,” Mr. Crystal said. “They would kill your mother for a quarter and theirs for a dollar.”

• Patrice Hill can be reached at phill@washingtontimes.com.

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