Revisionist corporate governance

Cite this Article
Geoffrey A. Manne, Revisionist corporate governance, Truth on the Market (May 29, 2009),

If you haven’t been living under a rock recently, you’ve seen an incredible amount of hand wringing–and proposed regulation–around “excessive compensation.”  I’m a little too lazy to amass all the relevant links here, but both the administration and the congress are introducing regulations/bills and talking about the issue extensively.

Commentators, too, have gotten in on the act, and one of the most respected, Alan Blinder, has recently penned a much-lauded WSJ op-ed on the topic, titled, “Crazy Compensation and the Crisis.”  The op-ed is well-written, and even makes some good points.  Here’s an excerpt I can get behind:

What to do? It is tempting to conclude that the U.S. (and other) governments should regulate compensation practices to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, go-for-broke incentives. But the prospects for success in this domain are slim. (I was in the Clinton administration in 1993 when we tried — and failed miserably.) The executives, lawyers and accountants who design compensation systems are imaginative, skilled and definitely not disinterested. Congress and government bureaucrats won’t beat them at this game.

I might disagree with the emphasis–I would say that even if government could be successful at regulating pay practices it shouldn’t do it, but the point is certainly a good one.  Blinder is also right on when he notes the benefits in this regard of partnerships over public corporations, a persuasive point Larry Ribstein has been making for a long while.

But the premise of the op-ed–and a lot of corporate governance talk these days–strikes me as problematic, incomplete and revisionist.  Here’s a key bit:

Take a typical trader at a bank, investment bank, hedge fund or whatever. Darwinian selection ensures us that these folks are generally smart young people with more than the usual appetite for both money and risk-taking. Unfortunately, their compensation schemes exacerbate these natural tendencies by offering them the following sort of go-for-broke incentives when they place financial bets: Heads, you become richer than Croesus; tails, you get no bonus, receive instead about four times the national average salary, and may (or may not) have to look for a new job. These bright young people are no dummies. Faced with such skewed incentives, they place lots of big bets. If tails come up, OPM will absorb almost all of the losses anyway.

The op-ed has been cited favorably by commentators ranging from the predictably-tiresome-and-unlikely-to-know-better (Frank Pasquale) to the informative-but-reflexively-pro-regulation (James Kwak) to the always-interesting-and-not-normally-in the-company-of-the-likes-of-Frank-Pasquale (Marc Hodak).

But it strikes me as shocking that Blinder (and his supporters)–who expresses surprise as well as dismay at the extent to which compensation schemes reward the upside so heavily and induce risk-taking–doesn’t even mention Agency Theory.

While Blinder may be surprised that corporate boards have been making such silly mistakes for so long, I would think that every professor or finance, corporate governance, corporate law, securities, and a few other disciplines besides would know that one of the fundamental problems of the corporate form is aligning risk-averse managerial interests with risk-preferring, diversified, shareholder interests.  Remove insider trading and short-selling from the equation and you’re left with potentially-large stock options and other forms of performance-based, deferred compensation.  Which have been lauded and paraded around for years as the salvation of entire industries.  So before we stare in amazement that firms are engaging in these sorts of compensation schemes (schemes that may lead to huge upside paydays, and even some large downside paydays, as well) perhaps we should understand the basic theory behind such behavior–as well as the raft of empirical studies supporting the theory.

Look–this isn’t to say that there might not be problems.  Efforts to align incentives may be out of whack, of course–only a fool would presume perfection on the part of market actors.  But only a greater fool would grant the government the power to control compensation schemes, and do so without acknowledging that there are incentive alignment problems; that there are agency costs; and that firms–to say nothing of broader markets–are complex entities not amenable to easy political solutions.  Alan Blinder should know this, and while his restraint is admirable (at least now–I guess he was more ambitious when he was in the Clinton administration) this is just fodder for the corporate governance revisionists who act like agency theory doesn’t exist and only criminals and greedy bloodsuckers design (and receive) executive compensation schemes.  (Actually, come to think of it, once the government starts setting corporate pay, this will almost be true!  I kid, I’m kidding.  Mostly).

Addendum: I should note two more things.  First, I was being a bit flip.  Blinder is clearly (and appropriately) sensitive to the agency problem of the separation of ownership and control inherent in compensation committees’ paying executives with shareholders’ money.  The problem I have is in the failure to acknowledge that there is another agency problem to deal with:  It is too facile to solve the one without concern for the other.

The second point I should make is that Marc Hodak, at least, among the op-ed’s fans, understands the agency problem, and shouldn’t be tarred with my criticism.  His citation to Jensen & Murphy’s “It’s not How Much You Pay, But How” article reflects exactly this concern–the focus should be structuring compensation to account for various agency problems, not blithely limiting its size.  The irony (to answer, I think, Marc’s riddle) is that Jensen and Murphy noted that, at least in 1990, all else equal, the size of executive compensation seemed low.  Again–the real concern was/is with appropriate structure, but at the end of the day, appropriate structure would, I think, for Jensen and Murphy in 1990, have resulted in higher payouts.  Blinder and, to name a few others, Barney Frank and Chuck Schumer, don’t seem to see it this way at all.