The question of how to interpret Goldman Sachs' unexpectedly large earnings has been addressed here and here (with an addendum at the bottom of the second post). One lesson appears to be that the bad incentives underlying executive compensation are still be present. However, exactly why that is the case - other than the sheer size of the profits - has not been fully addressed. This argument from Lucian Bebchuk takes a step in that direction by noting that the Goldman Sachs' bonuses are a reward for short-term gains, when we ought to be tying compensation to long-run performance. Thus, the problematic incentive to take on large amounts of risk in pursuit of immediate profits is still present. (Though it's not included below, he also argues that compensation should be based upon the long-run value of a broad basket of securities, not just common shares as has been typical in the past, to avoid distorting incentives in a way that gives executives another reason to take on too much risk):
Let the good times roll again?, by Lucian Bebchuk, Commentary, Project Syndicate: Goldman Sachs announced this month plans to provide bonuses at record levels, and there are widespread expectations that bonuses and pay in many other firms will rise substantially this year. Should the good times start rolling again so soon?
Not without reform. Indeed, one key lesson of the financial crisis is that an overhaul of executive compensation must be high on the policy agenda.
Indeed, pay arrangements were a major contributing factor to the excessive risk-taking by financial institutions that helped bring about the financial crisis. By rewarding executives for risky behaviour, and by insulating them from some of the adverse consequences of that behaviour, pay arrangements for financial-sector bosses produced perverse incentives, encouraging them to gamble.
One major factor that induced excessive risk-taking is that firms’ standard pay arrangements reward executives for short-term gains, even when those gains are subsequently reversed. Although the financial sector lost more than half of its stock-market value during the last five years, executives were still able to cash out, prior to the stock market implosion, large amounts of equity compensation and bonus compensation.
Such pay structures gave executives excessive incentives to seek short-term gains ... even when doing so would increase the risks of an implosion later on. ...
Following the crisis, this problem has become widely recognised... But it still needs to be effectively addressed: Goldman’s recent decision to provide record bonuses as a reward for performance in the last two quarters, for example, is a step in the wrong direction.
To avoid rewards for short-term performance and focus on long-term results, pay structures need to be re-designed. As far as equity-based compensation is concerned, executives should not be allowed to cash out options and shares given to them for a period of, say, five years after the time of “vesting”...
Similarly, bonus compensation should be redesigned to reward long-term performance. For starters, the use of bonuses based on one-year results should be discouraged. Furthermore, bonuses should not be paid immediately, but rather placed in a company account for several years and adjusted downward if the company subsequently learns that the reason for awarding a bonus no longer holds up. ...
A thorough overhaul of compensation structures must be an important element of the new financial order.
The latest I'm aware of on this topic is draft legislation Barney Frank circulated today:
All publicly traded U.S. companies, and particularly financial firms, would face new executive-compensation requirements under draft legislation circulated Friday by a top lawmaker in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The measure proposed by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., would give shareholders a greater ability to weigh in on compensation packages, require compensation consultants to satisfy independence criteria established by the government and would ensure that compensation committees are made up of independent directors. ...
Banks, broker-dealers, investment advisers and all other financial firms would be required to disclose any incentive-based compensation structures, while federal regulators would be able to limit "inappropriate or imprudently risky" pay practices.
The panel is expected to take up some form of the legislation next week.
This legislation would give regulators the power to limit executive pay structures that they believe are excessively risky, but exactly what types of compensation structures would be allowed or required under this legislation is a bit vague. It doesn't sound like it will be as restrictive as Lucian Bebchuk would like, but we shall see.
There are two related issues here. First, was the compensation fair in terms of being a reward for productive activities such as directing capital where it was most needed, or distributing and reducing risk? Before the crash, some people tried to make that argument, but for financial executives, it seems clear that the compensation was based upon bubble rather than fundamental values, and that this lead to inflated rewards relative to the value that was actually created. But even for non-financial executives, it's hard to believe that the generous compensation high-level managers and executives received in recent years is due entirely to their superior productivity. The "say on pay" part of the proposed legislation tries to give shareholders a greater voice in setting compensation levels, and is directed at this problem.
The second issue is whether the compensation structures that have been used in the past lead to incentives to accumulate more risk than is optimal. It appears that they did, and the second part of the proposal is an attempt to overcome this problem by giving regulators the ability to limit systemically risky practices.
There are two types of excessive risk to be worried about, but only one is a systemic risk, i.e. a risk to the overall economy. First, a particular executive compensation structure may give an executive the incentive to take on too much risk - more than shareholders desire - but there is no danger to the overall financial system. This type of excessive risk taking needs to be prevented, but it is not a danger to the overall economy, and regulators are generally concerned with microeconomics questions concerning optimal incentive structures. Second, there is excessive risk that endangers the entire financial system and the broader economy. This is systemic risk that is the target of the proposed legislation, the kind of risk regulators such as the Fed are concerned with, and the kind we must do our best to eliminate if we want to avoid a repeat of the present crisis.
To me, both elements of the proposed legislation - the part that gives shareholders the power to limit compensation levels and the part that gives regulators the power to limit risky compensation schemes - seem vague and rather weak. I hope that changes as the legislation develops.