Watchdog gives pay czar's legacy a failing grade

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration’s tough, but short-lived, crackdown on pay at the biggest U.S. banks will have little long-term impact, a bailout watchdog said in a report released on Thursday.

A customer walks past a Bank of America sign outside a branch in Tucson, Arizona January 21, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

The report by the bipartisan Congressional Oversight Panel found that Ken Feinberg, the administration’s “pay czar,” was not transparent enough in his methods for slashing pay at the firms under his jurisdiction, including Bank of America and Citigroup.

The report says Feinberg achieved his core mission of limiting pay at the top bailout recipients.

But the findings undercut the “pay czar” legacy of Feinberg, who had said that while his mandate was limited, his rulings could be a blueprint for Wall Street firms.

“So long as compensation experts on Wall Street and elsewhere lack the information needed to use the Special Master’s deliberations as a model, what seemed an opportunity for sweeping reform will be destined to leave a far more modest legacy,” the panel found.

Feinberg, an arbitration lawyer who was appointed in June 2009 as the “Special Master for Compensation,” has since become the administrator of the BP Plc’s $20 billion fund to compensate victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Treasury Department official Patricia Geoghegan has taken over the position of pay czar and still oversees executive payouts at AIG, General Motors, Ally Financial and Chrysler Group LLC, the automaker managed by Fiat SpA.

Other big financial firms escaped the government pay scrutiny when they repaid funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and have since extended big raises to their executives.

Goldman Sachs revealed last month that it tripled Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein’s base salary and awarded him $12.6 million of stock, even after the bank’s net income plunged last year.

Citigroup’s board approved a base salary of $1.75 million for CEO Vikram Pandit. Pandit had vowed in 2009 to receive an annual salary of $1 until Citigroup returned to sustained profitability.

U.S. regulators are trying to institute long-term reforms at banks, including a proposal requiring executives at the largest financial institutions to have half of their bonuses deferred for at least three years. These reforms have paled in comparison to crackdowns abroad.

Britain on Wednesday finalized a torturous deal with banks on Wednesday, known as “Project Merlin,” to curb bonuses and boost lending to business, although some critics charged it would be hard to enforce.


A Treasury official pushed back on the oversight panel’s criticism, saying the office was charged with making sure pay practices at TARP recipients were in the best interest of taxpayers, not to serve as a model for future reforms.

The official also said the pay czar office has been transparent, and publicly released letters detailing decisions and its methods can easily be discerned from these documents.

“Treasury took action in accordance with the mandate provided by Congress to dramatically reduce both the total and cash compensation paid to executives at companies that received ‘exceptional assistance’ under TARP,” Treasury Acting Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability Tim Massad said in an emailed statement.

The pay czar was charged with focusing on executive pay at the seven companies that received “exceptional assistance” through TARP: AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup, Chrysler, Chrysler Financial, General Motors and Ally.

The oversight report gives a hat tip to Feinberg’s efforts to tamp down on pay at bailed out firms noting that from 2008 to 2009 the average decrease in overall compensation for the 25-highest paid employees at these firms was almost 55 percent.

The panel was critical of Feinberg, however, for not pressuring executives at TARP recipients to give back some pay they received before February 2009, when his office was given this power by Congress.

Feinberg found none of these payments violated the “public interest” but deemed some were “disfavored” or “not necessarily appropriate,” according to the report.

“This is a distinction only a lawyer could love,” said former Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman, who heads the oversight panel.

Reporting by Dave Clarke; Editing by Tim Dobbyn