Summit Notebook

Exclusive outtakes from industry leaders

Where disaster and compensation intersect you’ll find Kenneth Feinberg

April 29, 2010

You can call him mediator, or you can call him negotiator, but don’t call him pay czar. REGULATION-SUMMIT/

Kenneth Feinberg says he doesn’t like the shorthand title that’s used to describe his role as the administration’s supervisor of compensation practices at firms that received money under the government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“A very unfortunate term,” he said at the Reuters Global Financial Regulation Summit. “Pay czar implies that I’m issuing some sort of imperial edicts, arbitrary edicts on pay, without regard to consensus or the input of the beneficiaries of these decisions.”

Au contraire. Feinberg says he tries to develop consensus with the companies. “I’m the pay mediator, I’m the negotiator.”

Although with his next breath he does acknowledge having the power. “I must say the statute ultimately gives me final authority so if you don’t work something out I’m obligated by law to make the decision. But I’m not looking to impose my will on these companies.”

But one of the wonders of Feinberg is that he seems to end up in the middle of the crossroads of money and disaster, sometimes trying to make unthinkable equations as when he had to determine payments to the families of  September 11 victims or distributions from a  fund setup in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings.

REGULATION-SUMMITSo why does he keep ending up at that intersection?

“That’s a question for a psychiatrist and a political scientist I guess. It just so happens in the last decade there have been some thorny public policy problems where one way or another I’ve been asked to get involved,” Feinberg said.

And how does supervising compensation at government bailed-out firms compare with putting a price on the Zapruder film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? (Yes he was involved in that too).

“It’s altogether different. In the Zapruder case it was a fascinating issue: what is the market value of that grainy 8 millimeter original black-and-white film of the Kennedy assassination, not as a commercial vehicle but as a historical artifact?” he said.

After a three-day arbitration the determination was $16 million.

“And you can go over and see that 8 millimeter film, sitting there in a humidor glass-enclosed case and you marvel that that piece of celluloid is worth $16 million, but it’s part of American history,” he says.

Photo credit: Reuters/Jason Reed (Feinberg at Reuters Summit)

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