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Pay czar's report finds many 'ill-advised' bonuses on Wall Street

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Kai Ryssdal: Today was something of a farewell party for the government's pay czar. Kenneth Feinberg has plans to step down, now that most companies that got significant help from the government are paying back their bailouts. He's going to be running the BP compensation fund starting next month. But before the job change, Feinberg had one last thing to do: A public shaming of 17 companies that handed out huge executive bonuses even as Wall Street and the economy were teetering.

Marketplace's Jeff Horwich reports.


Jeff Horwich: It's called the "Review of Prior Payments" -- a really boring name for some pretty hot stuff. The Obama administration told Feinberg to look at the early months of the financial crisis -- before the bailout, before the pay czar, with the entire financial system on the brink -- and then tell the American people how richly Wall Street was paying its top executives.

Rakesh Khurana: There were significant payouts going on at the same time that these banks were basically facing insolvency.

Rakesh Khurana teaches corporate governance at Harvard. Feinberg's report found $1.7 billion in payments the pay czar calls "ill-advised" -- bonuses, stock awards, "golden parachutes." They happened at 17 companies that later received bailout money. Khurana says the report's not likely to dent the recovery in Wall Street bonuses, which are back to pre-crisis levels.

Khurana: Shame or transparency or any type social pressure, it has very little effect on Wall Street.

Shame was Feinberg's only tool, since these payments were made before the government had any authority. But if Wall Street's not listening, federal regulators might be. The new financial reform bill left lots of blanks -- blanks about to be filled in by the SEC and other agencies.

Steve Ramirez directs the Business Law Center at Loyola University in Chicago.

Steve Ramirez: The hope here is that by focusing more attention on how distorted compensation was at the height of the crisis, there's more fuel in terms of public opinion for fixing it now.

Regulators need to decide, for example, how independent to make the "independent" executive compensation committees now required by the law. And they need to flesh out rules to let shareholders weigh in on CEO pay packages. Feinberg's parting shot may remind them not to go easy.

I'm Jeff Horwich for Marketplace.

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