Financial Regulatory Forum

Obama’s “pay czar” says weighing power to claw back compensation

By Reuters Staff
August 17, 2009

By Steve Eder

MARTHA’S VINEYARD, MASSACHUSETTS (Reuters) – Kenneth Feinberg, the Obama administration’s pay czar, said on Sunday he has broad and “binding” authority over executive compensation, including the ability to “claw back” money already paid, and he is weighing how and whether to use that power.

Feinberg told Reuters that Citigroup Inc included the contract of energy trader Andrew Hall in submissions due Friday by seven major companies still locked in the federal government’s TARP Program.

Feinberg said he hasn’t looked at Hall’s contract, which reports have said could pay him as much as $100 million this year.

“Whether I have jurisdiction to decide his compensation or not, we will take a look and decide over the next few weeks,” Feinberg said after speaking at a public forum in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, part of a newsmaker series hosted by the Martha’s Vineyard Times newspaper.

Feinberg has been consulting with seven companies that have yet to pay back money they borrowed from the government, including Citi, American International Group Inc, Bank of America Corp, Chrysler Financial, Chrysler Group LLC, General Motors Co and GMAC Inc.

Those companies faced a deadline of Friday of submitted proposals to Feinberg for their top 25 employees.

Feinberg said on Sunday that decisions he makes will be “binding,” but the law limits his power over contracts signed before February 11, 2009.

He also said he has the authority to use a “clawback” provision to go after compensation for executives from any company that received money from the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Progr.am (TARP).

“I have the discretion, conferred upon by Congress, to attempt to recover compensation that has already been paid to executives not only in these companies, but in any company that received federal assistance,” Feinberg said during his remarks.

Asked by Reuters if he could use that ability to target a firm like Goldman Sachs Group Inc, which paid back $10 billion in bailout money, Feinberg said: “Anything is possible under the law.”

“I can claw back, but we haven’t focused on that at all,” he said.

“TOUGH DISAGREEMENTS”
Feinberg said he has been advising the seven firms under his jurisdiction on a daily basis, characterizing the meetings as “very amicable.”

“There have been some tough disagreements, but everyone is trying to get to an end place in compensation that makes sense in a post-TARP world,” Feinberg said.

Citigroup, in particular, has concerns about pay restrictions causing its top employees to leave, Feinberg said.

“Citibank says if you don’t pay us x or y, the going rate for our senior officials, they will leave,” Feinberg said. “They will go to Goldman Sachs. They will go to JPMorgan Chase & Co. Worse, they’ll go to UBS or the Royal Bank of Scotland, or foreign banks.”

Feinberg said the law requires him to take market forces into account, but also to consider performance and past deals between a company and an employee.

“The statute provides these guideposts, but the statute ultimately says I have discretion to decide what it is that these people should make and that my determination will be final,” Feinberg said.

“The officials can’t run to the Secretary of Treasury. The officials can’t run to the court house or a local court. My decision is final on those individuals,” Feinberg added.

Feinberg told Reuters he hasn’t spoken with President Barack Obama about his role as the administration’s watchdog on pay, although he has been in touch with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Feinberg, who also served as the special master over the Federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the Virginia Tech shooting fund, said compensation was an “emotional issue, but it doesn’t rise to the level of those cases.”

(Reporting by Steve Eder in Martha’s Vineyard. Additional reporting by Anupreeta Das in New York. Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Valerie Lee)

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