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Ancient alchemists tried to turn lead into gold. I've got an idea for a new, 21st century form of alchemy: Let's try turning golden parachutes into leaden parachutes. "Golden parachutes" are too often an illogical policy in normal times -- for example, when executives who run companies into the ground receive giant outgoing pay packages. It's now made worse when currently beleaguered companies are seeking government help and somehow think such paydays should still apply.
A lot of somebodies didn't get the memo
Many companies applying for government funds have seemed strangely oblivious of their own supposedly dire plights and still plan bonuses and raises for their executives, not to mention dividend payments and acquisitions. Talk about entitled attitudes (made quite clear from sick bits from recent congressional hearings).
Remember all the outrage at the idea that CEOs at Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM ) , Freddie Mac, and AIG (NYSE: AIG ) might wiggle out of their companies' wreckages with massive golden parachutes? Apparently the sound of fury fell on many deaf ears -- although I was glad to see a Wall Street Journal article that said securities firms are mulling cutting executives' pay due to public outrage. But many individuals at affected corporations haven't seemed to "get it."
After all, more and more companies are getting off the beaten path despite the promise of emergency help from the government and the U.S. Treasury's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Is it like bad kids trying to see just how much they can get away with?
For example, Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) may have cut its dividend, but it still pays one, despite the fact that it's on the TARP list. PNC Financial Services Group (NYSE: PNC ) announced its acquisition of National City after it received $7.7 billion in government funds. Or how about The South Financial Group's (Nasdaq: TSFG ) CEO recently announcing his retirement -- with a $12 million payout reportedly pending -- just days after the company said it was going to apply for TARP funding?
What reluctant support there was for bailout money for financial firms (mostly from politicians, as it was tremendously unpopular with many of us little people) was based on allegations that our economy would grind to a halt if these companies weren't propped up. So how is it that these companies appear to be all business as usual, throwing money into the wind, as if nothing has gone amiss at all?
Onto the golden parachutes
Speaking of throwing money into the wind, that's a golden parachute for ya. Furthermore, in the current situation, I can't fathom the argument that public money can or should be used to make good on millions, even billions, of dollars in contractual goodbye payouts to executives departing from companies whose engines just stalled and are in a nosedive.
I'm a proponent of the free market -- it's harsh but free and fair -- but these days many corporations make it clear that they're about "management culture" far more than free-market principles. They're looking out for themselves and their top brass at the expense of shareholders, employees, and now taxpayers, regardless of performance.
That's not a free market, it's a rigged con game, and shareholders, employees, and taxpayers are the losers. And I fear the government intervention is going to make it an even more absurd rigged con game as Uncle Sam in effect rewards and enables bad behavior, maybe even picks winners and losers, and then lets them take advantage of public funds in various ways.
I have no problem with lucrative compensation for stellar performance, but the concept that certain "important" people should be grandiosely paid no matter what transpires under their watch has got to go.
The end of the era of entitlement
I can only hope that despite all that's utterly rotten about our current financial situation, some good things will result. I'd like to see "investors" ditch the speculative pursuit of short-term wealth and remember long-term investing requires seeking out solid, well-run companies and -- gasp! -- being patient. And hey, if they realize their companies are run by overly compensated crooks or mediocre do-nothings, shareholders should either try a little shareholder activism or bail like the house is on fire, because one day, it probably will be.
Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) Warren Buffett has often spoken out about the dangers and illogic of runaway CEO compensation, including pay for failure, and it's high time we all listened, and cared about this issue far more than we have.
Let's embrace being true shareholders and remember part-ownership also means being fully informed and standing up for good corporate governance principles like "say-on-pay" policies and keeping an eye on whether boards are looking out for shareholders', not management's, interests. Outrageous golden parachutes being given out even in the event of flaming failure should become a thing of the past.
The sense of entitlement -- and refusal to take responsibility -- that seems pervasive in the management cultures at many public companies simply has to go. It's not what made our country great, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with a free-market economy, which allows successful ideas to flourish and renders failed ideas obsolete. So bring on the leaden parachutes!
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