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Wall Street Journal, October  21, 2008 article


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Executive Pay Curbs Go Global

Pay Pinch?

More countries move to curb executive pay, at companies with and without government rescues.

AUSTRALIA: Prime minister seeking executive-pay rules for finance firms to discourage excessive risk-taking; he will then propose the rules to the international community.

FRANCE: Business leaders adopted code of conduct that prevents 'golden parachute' exit payments for failed executives.

GERMANY: Compensation for top executives at banks tapping government bailout funds capped at €500,000; bonuses, stock options and severance barred.

NETHERLANDS: Top executives of ING Groep NV agreed to give up 2008 bonuses and limit severance if dismissed in exchange for government financial injection.

SWEDEN: Participating banks in proposed bailout must agree with government to limit compensation for 'key executives.'

SWITZERLAND: UBS AG agreed as part of recapitalization to use international best practices for executive pay and government monitoring.

U.S.: Limits on corporate-tax deductions on executive pay and 'golden parachutes.' Firms also must recover awards based on inaccurate results and bar incentives for 'unnecessary and excessive risks.'

U.K.: Government is taking board seats at two big banks, permitting more oversight of pay practices; regulator wants investment banks to drop pay practices that may have encouraged risk-taking.

Source: WSJ reporting


Sweden unveiled a plan that offers bank guarantees of $200 billion. Banks taking part must limit key executives' compensation.

The German cabinet imposed a €500,000 ($670,000) annual salary cap and other limits on top executives of banks that receive capital injections or sell troubled assets under that nation's rescue plan. The U.S. financial-industry bailout also limits compensation at participating firms. Some predict that could lead to pay restrictions at other U.S. companies.

One lightning rod is Wall Street executives who walk away with big payouts from companies receiving government money, despite the curbs. Peter Kraus, head of strategy at Merrill Lynch & Co. since early September, is expected to leave the firm and pocket over $10 million under terms of his contract, say people familiar with the matter. Mr. Kraus, who declined to comment through a Merrill spokesman, is not among the executives included in the government compensation limits because his post isn't among the company's top-five jobs.

The widespread moves to restrict compensation reflect public outrage over outsized pay packages for executives who led banks to big losses -- or bankruptcy proceedings. Governments need to impose pay limits "to get popular buy-in for these bailouts," said Stephen Davis, a senior fellow at Yale University School of Management's Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and Performance.

The curbs range from sweeping to narrow. The German plan is among the most restrictive. In addition to the salary limit for top executives, it also bars bonuses, stock-option grants, severance payments and option exercises at banks drawing government funds during the bailout program, which could last through 2012. Banks that only tap credit guarantees are exempt from the restrictions.

At the other extreme, Switzerland's UBS AG agreed as part of a government recapitalization plan to use international "best practices" for executive pay and accept government monitoring.

The U.S. financial-rescue law falls somewhere in between. For the five top executives at participating companies, the Treasury Department is limiting corporate-tax deductions on executive pay and "golden parachute" payments for departing executives, requiring certain companies to recover awards to executives that were made based on inaccurate results, and barring incentives given executives to take "unnecessary and excessive risks."

"It's the first time in history that there has been a spontaneous international effort to rein in executive pay," said Ira Kay, head of executive-compensation consulting at Watson Wyatt Worldwide in New York.

But it is unclear which, if any, of the approaches will be effective at curbing compensation. Past efforts in the U.S. generally haven't slowed the rise of executive pay but instead shifted the way top managers are rewarded. Executives outside the U.S. typically make less, but experts say that is due more to historical and cultural factors than government rules.

One skeptic is Anne Simpson, executive director of the International Corporate Governance Network, a London group representing more than 500 institutional investors in 40 countries. Government pay curbs for bailed-out concerns "might throw some sand in the cogs" temporarily but won't fix what Ms. Simpson considers a bigger problem: the lack of accountability of corporate boards.

There are some indications of a broader shift in attitudes. Some executives in several countries are voluntarily limiting pay, even when not required by the new rules. Deutsche Bank AG said its 10 top executives will forgo 2008 bonuses, even though Germany's biggest bank doesn't plan to accept government cash. The ousted chief executive of French-Belgian municipal lender Dexia SA renounced his €3.7 million "golden parachute." Robert Willumstad, replaced last month as CEO of American International Group Inc. as part of a U.S. government rescue, later said he won't accept his $22 million severance payment.

The hastily imposed limits included in bailout measures likely portend more sweeping efforts to control pay by lawmakers and shareholders next year. In the U.S., both major-party presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, support giving shareholders an annual nonbinding vote on compensation of top executives; a bill requiring such votes passed the House of Representatives last year, but wasn't voted on in the Senate. The U.K. and Australia are among countries that already require such votes.

In Congress, key Democratic members, who likely will retain control of the body, have also signaled interest in broader measures. The bailout law "creates the floor for executive pay and governance-reform packages" in Congress next year, suggested Richard Ferlauto, head of corporate governance and pension investment at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. George Paulin, CEO of Frederic W. Cook & Co., a compensation consulting firm in New York, predicts such a bill could include curbs on deferred compensation.

Officials in the U.K. and Australia already are trying to restrict compensation at companies unaffected by government bailouts. Britain's markets regulator sent chief executives of investment banks a sternly worded letter last week urging their boards to drop pay practices that may have encouraged risky behavior -- and vowing checks to make sure such "bad practices" disappear. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said last week his government will create new executive-pay rules that discourage excessive risk-taking in the financial sector. Mr. Rudd will then propose the rules to the international community.

Executive pay was a hot-button issue in Germany even before the bank-rescue package; some politicians in recent months have called for mandatory caps across all industries. Last week, Economy Minister Michael Glos urged other high-paid bankers to follow Deutsche Bank's example of a voluntary pullback. Mr. Glos's request remains unheeded so far.

Some argue that the evolving pay curbs could make it harder for some affected financial institutions to attract and retain managers. Marco Cabras, a spokesman for DSW, a German shareholder-rights group, said that country's strict pay limits could persuade some managers to move to other industries.

"Why would anyone who is an A player want to come into an institution with all kinds of [pay] restrictions?" asked Thomas Neff, chairman of U.S. operations at Spencer Stuart, an executive-search firm in New York. Espen Eckbo, a professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, said some German finance managers may gravitate toward private buyout firms, where pay won't be limited.

At the same time, the spreading clampdown on executive pay may increase the number of finance professionals seeking work in developing countries without banking bailouts, where recruiters say opportunities still abound. The market for financial jobs hasn't been hurt as badly in those nations as in New York and other U.S. financial hubs.

—Rachel Pannett and David Gauthier-Villars contributed to this article.

Write to Joann S. Lublin at and Mike Esterl at


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