Monday, June 15, 2009

Richard Posner and Gary Becker on the futility of a Pay Czar

Becker writes:
Defenders of the selection of Mr. [Kenneth] Feinberg [as Pay Czar] point to his almost three years spent as a pro bono Special Master of the fund that compensated victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I do not know how well he carried out these duties, but determining compensation of victims is entirely different from what is required to set compensation of executives. As Special Master he had to assess the value of losses due to wrongful deaths and injuries. Although that assessment is not easy- it depends on lost earnings and other aspects of the so-called statistical value of life- it really has little to do with determining employee pay in a few companies engaged in highly competitive and changing industries.

The same fatal conceit behind the setting up of a pay Czar is also responsible for the belief that members of Congress and Washington officials are capable of steering GM and Chrysler toward profitable directions. This is behind the government pressure on these companies to shift toward small fuel-efficient cars, even though GM and Chrysler have been best at producing trucks and larger cars. Perhaps they will be able to make this shift, but it is far more likely that Honda, Kia, Toyota, and other foreign auto manufacturers that have been making small cars for decades will eat their lunch.

and Posner says:
Any monkeying by government with compensation practices, especially below the top level of management and especially in financial firms, will impair the ability of American firms to compete with foreign firms. The banking business is thoroughly international, and unless all countries act in lock step with the United States in regulating compensation practices, many of our ablest financiers will be lured to foreign banks.

One can only hope that the appointment of a "pay czar" is merely a sop to ignorant public and congressional opinion, and that Mr. Feinberg will be suitably restrained in the exercise of his powers. Secretary of the Treasury Geithner seems unenthusiastic about the government's imposing more than cosmetic changes on corporate compensation. practices. More power to him.

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