WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has begun serious talks about how it can change compensation practices across the financial-services industry, including at companies that did not receive federal bailout money, according to people familiar with the matter.
The initiative, which is in its early stages, is part of an ambitious and likely controversial effort to broadly address the way financial companies pay employees and executives, including an attempt to more closely align pay with long-term performance.
Administration and regulatory officials are looking at various options, including using the Federal Reserve’s supervisory powers, the power of the Securities and Exchange Commission and moral suasion. Officials are also looking at what could be done legislatively.
Among ideas being discussed are Fed rules that would curb banks’ ability to pay employees in a way that would threaten the “safety and soundness” of the bank — such as paying loan officers for the volume of business they do, not the quality. The administration is also discussing issuing “best practices” to guide firms in structuring pay.
At the same time, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D., Mass.) is working on legislation that could strengthen the government’s ability both to monitor compensation and to curb incentives that threaten a company’s viability or pose a systemic risk to the economy.
It is unclear how such a bill would fit with what the Fed and others are already considering. But any legislation passed would make it harder for policy makers to dial back limits once the financial crisis subsides.
Any new compensation rules would likely be rolled out alongside a broader revamp of financial-markets regulation that the Treasury is pushing. The compensation effort is the latest example of the government’s increasing focus on aspects of the financial sector that once were untouched.
Regulators have long had the power to sanction a bank for excessive pay structures, but have rarely used it. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency last year quietly pressed an unidentified large bank to make changes “pertaining to compensation incentives for bank personnel responsible for assigning risk ratings,” a spokesman said. Since 2007, it has privately directed 15 banks to change their executive compensation practices.
Government officials said their effort, which is just beginning, isn’t aimed at setting pay or establishing detailed rules. “This is not going to be about capping compensation or micro-management,” said an administration official. “It will be about understanding what is the best way to align compensation with sound risk management and long-term value creation.”
Despite the banking industry’s weakened state, it would likely try to push back against curbs on how financial firms can compensate people. Bank executives have complained to federal officials that strict rules could prompt some of their best employees to move to parts of the financial industry that aren’t regulated, such as hedge funds, private-equity firms and foreign banks. They’ve also argued that paying substantial bonuses is integral to how the industry works.
“Our companies have already enhanced, strengthened and expanded the number of compensation programs that are tied to long-term incentives,” said Scott Talbott, a senior vice president at the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group.
Edward Yingling, chief executive of the American Bankers Association, said banks might be able to accept new rules “as long as they are general in nature and could be enforced on a case-by-case basis. What would never work is detailed regulation of compensation.”
President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have both blamed the way banks structured compensation plans for contributing to the financial mess. In February, Mr. Obama said executive pay helped lead to a “reckless culture and a quarter-by-quarter mentality that in turn helped to wreak havoc in our financial system.”
Mr. Geithner recently instructed his staff to begin discussions with the Fed, the SEC and others about ways to address compensation practices.
During a recent congressional hearing, Chairman Ben Bernanke said the Fed was working on rules that will “ask or tell banks to structure their compensation, not just at the very top level but down much further, in a way that is consistent with safety and soundness — which means that payments, bonuses and so on should be tied to performance and should not induce excessive risk.”
In an indication of how broad the effort may become, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair said regulators need to examine compensation practices in the mortgage industry, suggesting new limits could stretch beyond banks.
“We need to make sure that incentives are aligned among all parties by making compensation contingent on the long-run performance of the underlying loans,” Ms. Bair said on Tuesday.
The discussions follow a narrower effort by the administration to clip pay at firms that get federal aid. Earlier this year, it issued guidelines limiting salaries for top executives at firms that received funds under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Congress chimed in with even tougher rules curbing bonuses for top earners at the same firms, among other things. One rule bars firms receiving federal funds from paying top earners bonuses that equal more than a third of their total compensation.
The administration is still wrestling with how to marry those two efforts, which in combination are more punitive than officials intended. The Treasury is expected to issue new rules sometime in the next few weeks.
Just plain insanity.
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