I’m not sure the members of the “Occupy” movement realize it, but indirectly at least, it seems that they hooked a very big fish yesterday. At least that’s what common sense and my Tuesday night hockey group says.
55 per cent of Citigroup’s shareholders voted Tuesday against a $15 million pay package for the bank’s embattled CEO, Vikram S. Pandit. It was the very first time shareholders have “united in opposition to outsize compensation at a financial giant,” according to the New York Times.
It wasn’t the individual shareholder on the street opposing Pandit’s big payoff. It was a group of professional institutional investors including the Florida State Board of Administration and Calpers, the massive California state pension fund, protesting that even though Pandit took just a single dollar per year in compensation during the dark days of 2009 and 2010, the recent performance of Citibank’s stock, the worst among major banks, did not justify opening the floodgates on the CEO’s salary yet. The vote could spell and end to the almost mind-boggling acquiescence of investors to oversized executive compensation in the companies they own that’s existed for decades. How odd it was to hear, for the first time in recent memory, a key investor say that Citibank’s compensation plan represented a “disconnect between pay and performance.”
So what does this have to do with Occupy? The movement has, in my opinion, failed to see its most direct path to reigning in America’s undeserving fat cats: shareholder activism. People who own stock in a company can, obviously, directly control its pay practices (at least, in companies who don’t have increasingly popular non-voting classes of stock). I’ve long argued that mutual funds have tended to mute this control. They’re one of the most evil derivative products on earth, because so many of the individuals who hold them don’t even know which companies they have in their fund, and are very unlikely to show up at a shareholder meeting to challenge even the most outrageous offenses by management.
But institutional investors are a more aware bunch, and I think Occupy has, in a subtle way, co-opted them. I make that judgment based on highly unscientific observations of a bunch of 40-plus guys I play ice hockey with each Tuesday night. Donning helmets and pads in the locker room is a time of ranting about this (women), that (the NHL) and occasionally, the other: events in the news. The Occupy movement has come up in this context several times, and the reaction has been curious. Generally the cops, store owners and other normal folk see the Occupiers as the worst kind of spoiled brats. But there are always some financiers there lacing up skates and, they, to a man, show a surprising sympathy for Occupy’s argument – or at least their own interpretation of it.
The money guys accept quite readily the idea that some people in this country are paid far more than they deserve, based on what they produce. Occupy may take more of the view that nobody should be fabulously rich no matter what they do, which our financial hockey players would clearly disagree with. No matter though, the concept that executive pay has somehow become unhinged from reality has seeped into some very places where it has been absent for decades, and that’s a cultural change that Occupy inserted into the national conversation. Now, it’s having ripple effects.
The Citibank shareholder vote is not binding, but a bank spokesperson said the board of directors would take it “very seriously.” Meanwhile, financial journalists from one end of the web to another warned that Bank of America and others could soon be under attack over executive compensation from their leading shareholders.