The link between underfunded pensions and executive pay

Posted by Marc Hodak on January 26, 2010 under Executive compensation, Politics, Scandal | Be the First to Comment

Last November, the Government Accountability Office released a report titled “PRIVATE PENSIONS: Sponsors of 10 Underfunded Plans Paid ­Executives Approximately $350 Million in Compensation Shortly Before Termination.”  At the time, I was wondering:  Gee, how did they pick those ten companies?

Not really.  Anyone familiar with politics knows exactly what the criteria was–it was blazoned on the title of the report.  The more interesting question is:  What exactly is the link between unfunded pensions and executive pay that the government would consider it worth highlighting in a few hundred pounds of wasted paper?

It’s a weak link.  Benefits consultant Michael Barry snaps it with some hard sense:

Obviously, out in the political atmosphere, these two things—PBGC liability and executive compensation—are connected somehow, but is there a logic to that connection?

Certainly, you’ve got to pay an executive something, and who is to say that in these circumstances this $350 million wasn’t the right amount? It’s clear that there are, anecdotally, instances that could only be called grotesque abuse. Also without doubt, there are companies out there (perhaps not these 10, which apparently all went bankrupt) with executives that are underpaid. In real life, if you want to win, you’re going to have to pay for talent.

Moreover, why exactly is executive compensation the PBGC’s problem? Couldn’t you make the same argument about corporate charitable giving? Every dollar of matching grants that these companies paid the United Way could have gone to fund the pension plan. Why pick on executives? Why not pick on the company day-care center?

Or, why not pick on regular employees? Surely there are some rank-and-file employees out there who are overpaid. According to The Wall Street Journal, the UAW jobs bank program cost U.S. automakers $1.5 billion in one year—2006. These were “employees” getting paid not to work.

Of course, there may be perfectly reasonable reasons for giving to the United Way, or providing a day-care center, or providing a jobs bank. There also may be perfectly reasonable reasons for paying executives managing companies through difficult times big salaries and bonuses. Or there may not. However, the government—is there any money being wasted on government employees I wonder?—is in no position to tell which is which.

That last point bears repeating.  What standard does an outsider use to determine if a company is spending too much or too little on anything, especially something as difficult to value as senior talent?

Barry’s conclusion is not something we see in the mainstream media:

The point being—if it’s not obvious—that there is no necessary link between executive pay and unfunded benefits. The idea that there is, is simply an appeal to envy—which is, you know, a base instinct. (Some of us actually think it’s a sin.)

And some of us think envy is every bit as bad a sin as greed–much worse if it has state force behind it.