Paying CEOs Top Dollar for Poor Performance

Posted on August 30, 2013

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Note from Rafik Beekun

When you reward the top people in a company for doing a bad job, you encourage them to repeat their bad performance and you also indicate to everybody else in the company that bad performance will get them rewarded (and maybe the CEO position).

Paying CEOs Top Dollar for Poor Performance

August 28, 2013
by Zoë Carpenter

One of the great American delusions is meritocracy — the idea that everyone competes on an even playing field, and then gets what they deserve. In a meritocratic society, we would expect top-earning chief executives to represent the best and the brightest. Or, at the very least, to be good at their jobs.

Consider the case of Richard Fuld, who ran Lehman Brothers from 1994 until 2008. Fuld made the list of America’s twenty-five highest-paid executives for eight years in a row, until the bank collapsed under a slew of bad investments. The Lehman bust was the largest bankruptcy in the nation’s history and a defining event in the financial crisis. For his leadership in the eight years prior to the collapse, while the firm was making bad bets and covering them up with accounting tricks, Fuld raked in more than $466 million.

Then there’s Vikram Pandit, former CEO of Citigroup. Pandit made the top-twenty-five list in 2008, earning $38 million. That same year, his firm laid off 75,000 employees, and took government bailouts ultimately exceeding $472 billion. Pandit accepted only $1 for his services while his firm was in the red, but by 2011 he was back on the list of top earners.

These cases of gross overcompensation for poor performance seem exceptional, but in fact they’re representatives of a trend. A twenty-year review released today by the Institute for Policy Studies found that the records of nearly 40 percent of America’s top-earning executives include leading their firms to bankruptcy, government bailouts, fraud-related fines and settlements, and their own firm.

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