Can Goldman’s Shareholders Rein In The Squid?

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Maybe this represents progress, maybe it’s just a fad that gives way to business as usual in a year or so.

According to the WSJ, Goldman Sach has been engaging some of its shareholders in a discussion about the firm’s compensation policies and, naturally, defending the status quo. The article seems to intimate that there is some level of discomfort among the shareholders with regard to the size of the payouts while Goldman maintains everyone is copacetick.

From the Journal:

Goldman spokesman Lucas van Praag said the company is “puzzled” at the suggestion some shareholders want compensation levels reduced because shareholder feedback has been very supportive.

He said Goldman has “an open, ongoing dialogue with our shareholders about any and all matters they think are important. He said while the meetings included a segment on compensation, the firm also discussed third-quarter results and other matters with shareholders. Another senior company executive added the discussions are being held primarily to find out if shareholders want the firm to change its compensation program. The responses have been “almost uniformly no,” he said.

Hye-Won Choi, head of corporate governance at TIAA-CREF, which owns about $1 billion of Goldman shares, said the meetings “are a constructive first step, and the next logical action would be for Goldman to proactively consider putting its compensation policies to a vote of shareholders. If Goldman Sachs, acts the rest of Wall Street will likely follow.” TIAA-CREF has been pushing for better disclosure by all publicly traded companies about how compensation is linked to performance and business strategy.

So far, Goldman has shown no signs of backing down to anger over the firm’s pay and benefits, on track to hit a record high of about $717,000 per employee, consultant and temporary worker for 2009, nearly double last year’s $364,000.

See what I mean. There does seem to be some disconnect even if you don’t discount the diplomatic tone of the TIAA representative.

If ¬†Goldman’s shareholders and others could begin to exert some influence on compensation plan it would go a long way towards getting Washington out of the business or regulating it. A little bit of responsible action from the private sector would go some distance in muting the arguments in favor of government intervention.

A more important issue here might be the need for the nation’s pension overseers to finally begin to do something that materially improves the dismal performance of their management of retirement assets. For too long the only thing we’ve seen from them aside from “go along and get along” has been a devotion to the advancement of various social causes. All probably worthwhile so long as their core mission — providing sufficient assets to satisfy pension obligations — was being met. Unfortunately, they were failing dismally in that primary charge.

If a disaster, the scope of which would make the recent financial crisis pale, is going to be averted, pension plans and those that manage them are going to have to become much more involved in the nuts and bolts of ensuring that their investments are properly managed in order to meet their mandates. Executive compensation is not a bad place to start.

Here’s hoping that the Goldman shareholders stick to their guns and do force some changes. If it devolves into the usual PR in which the managers on both sides work to ensure their interests at the expense of the true beneficiaries then that would reaffirm the contention that the system is truly broken, and that would open wider the door to a government imposed solution.

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