James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Citigroup’s big pay hikes

June 24, 2009

Instead of big bonsuses, Citigroup is moving toward bigger salaries. Here is what the company should be doing:

What sort of compensation might work better to align executive compensation with long-term shareholder interests? A group of academics — Alex Edmans of Wharton, Xavier Gabaix and Tomasz Sadzik of New York University and Yuliy Sannikov of Princeton — have devised an approach based on what they call “dynamic incentive accounts.”

Unlike bonus clawbacks, this system doesn’t try to recoup money already sent out the door.

Here is how it works, according to their new study: Executive pay is escrowed into an account, a fraction of which is invested in the firm’s stock and the remainder in cash. The account would be rebalanced each month according to company guidelines — rules would certainly also vary by industry — and by how close the executive is to retirement.

The gradual vesting of the account — cash from a sold stock cannot quickly withdrawn — even after retirement, “allows the CEO to consume while simultaneously deterring myopic actions.”

In other words, the goal is to promote long-term thinking over short-term manipulation.

For instance: If company’s stock soared, the executive could sell, though the proceeds would say in the account. If the stock then dropped, that money would have to be used to buy more stock. He couldn’t just take the money and run.

Is this the best system out there?. Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe for some firms or sectors and not for others. But that is why you don’t want a one-size-fits-all plan devised in Washington, particularly one with political rather than economic goals. That is a pothole that Barack Obama and Timothy Geithner have so far avoided.

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