The John M. Olin Center

Paper Abstract

641. Lucian A. Bebchuk and Holger Spamann, Regulating Bankers' Pay, 6/09; subsequently published in Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 98, No. 2, January 2010, 247-287.

Abstract: This paper contributes to understanding the role of executive compensation as a possible cause of the current financial crisis, to assessing current legislative and regulatory attempts to discourage bank executives from taking excessive risks, and to identifying how bankers’ pay should be reformed and regulated going forward.

Although there is now wide recognition that bank executives’ decisions might have been distorted by the short-term focus of pay packages, we identify a separate and critical distortion that has received little attention. Because bank executives have been paid with shares in bank holding companies or options on such shares, and both banks and bank holding companies issued much debt to bondholders, executives’ payoffs have been tied to highly levered bets on the value of the capital that banks have. These highly levered structures gave executives powerful incentives to under-weight downside risks.

We show that current legislative and regulatory attempts to discourage bank executives from taking excessive risks fail to address this identified distortion. In particular, recently adopted requirements aimed at aligning the interests of executives tightly with those of the common shareholders of bank holding companies – through emphasizing awards of restricted shares in these companies and introducing “say on pay” votes by these shareholders – miss the mark. The common shareholders of bank holding companies, especially now that the value of their investment has decreased considerably, would favor much more risk-taking than would be in the interest of the government as preferred shareholder and guarantor of some of the bank’s obligations.

Finally, having identified the problems with current legislative and regulatory attempts, we analyze how best to implement recent legislative mandates that require banks receiving TARP funding to eliminate incentives to take excessive risks. Beyond banks receiving governmental support, we put forward a new strategy for banking regulation; we argue that monitoring and regulating bankers’ pay should be an important element of banking regulation in general, and we analyze how banking regulators should assess and regulate bankers’ pay.

641: PDF