What's this? A recount of January's announcement that Wall Street banks -the same ones that ran the world economy off the cliff-- paid $18 billion in bonuses for 2008?
You could be excused for forgetting it, given the heights of criminality we've scaled in the last eight years; but the reign of King George was ushered in on a wave of corporate bankruptcies the likes of which we've only recently seen again. At the dawn of the millennium, as the dot com bubble burst, scores of companies, like WorldCom and Enron, went under.
And their chief executives made out like bandits.
The Financial Times looked into this in 2002. What they found shocked the public and grabbed the attention of lawmakers for a time. In the largest 25 corporate bankruptcies between 1999 and 2002, while hundreds of billions of dollars of investor wealth and over 100,000 jobs disappeared, the FT found the "barons of bankruptcy" made off with $3.3 billion.
How did the captains of finance build this "heads I win, tails I win again" machine? And how is it that we are here, six years on, watching incompetence being richly rewarded once again?
This isn't merely a story of greed run rampant. It's a story of greed that was enabled to go wild by corporate structures, tax codes and the accounting standards by which corporations keep track of their money. It demonstrates that, dull as they may be, such arcane regulations have immense influence on the daily lives of millions of people.
In response to the executive excesses of the Reagan era, in 1993 Congress capped at $1 million the amount of executive salary corporations could claim as tax deductions. At the same time, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the accounting industry's self-regulation arm, considered requiring that stock options be recorded as corporate expenses.
Stock options give to the person receiving them the option to buy a certain amount of a company's stock at a set price. They are most often used as part of an executive compensation package, augmenting cash salaries. Not counting them as an expense exaggerates corporate profitability and gives a distorted market signal to investors. It dilutes the value of the already outstanding stock by increasing the number of shares the profit/dividend must be divided between. Because of these considerations, the FASB thought expensing stock options was a no-brainer.
Joseph Stiglitz, chairman of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors at the time, describes how wrong they were in his book, The Roaring Nineties. Corporate leaders started whining that expensing stock options would destroy entrepreneurship in the US. They lobbied Congress and administration officials. Treasury Secretary Bentsen and Commerce Secretary Brown wrote a letter denouncing the proposal. With industry encouragement, Senator Lieberman authored a non-binding resolution decrying the proposed standard, and spearheaded passage of a law stripping the FASB of authority to issue such standards, even though, as an independent, industry organization, the FASB was not subject to Congressional authority. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was dragged into the debate and threatened with a gutted budget if it allowed the FASB to enacted the standard. Under this intense pressure, the FASB adopted a watered down version.
After 1994, stock options remained hidden in the footnotes of corporate annual reports. And the foreseeable happened. With tax exemptions for cash salaries capped, the use of stock options exploded. In 1990 stock options for CEOs of publicly traded corporations amounted to approximately 5% of their total compensation. By 1999 this percentage rose to an estimated 60%. During that time, average compensation rose 150% with stock options accounting for most of this increase.
These kinds of financial innovations are common, and they have turned US business into a shadow game, a house of cards waiting for the wind to blow. What developed out of this was a corporate culture in which the interests of CEOs and other managers diverged widely from those of other stockholders. (This conflict is as old as the stock company. Adam Smith commented on it in his 18th century classic, The Wealth of Nations. Stock options just put that conflict on steroids and multiply its destructiveness.)
Managers are in effect stock speculators, boosting short term stock price by any means necessary, regardless of its effect on the long term viability of the company. Investors that mean to hold onto the stock, on the other hand, are best served by building a stable enterprise. When it comes down to it, the interests of those who daily run the companies are the ones that are served.