In his “Stories I’d Like to See” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Looking at ‘Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo’:
In his 2006 annual report to shareholders , Warren Buffett had this to say about compensation consultants:
Too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance. That won’t change, moreover, because the deck is stacked against investors when it comes to the CEO’s pay. The upshot is that a mediocre-or-worse CEO — aided by his handpicked VP of human relations and a consultant from the ever-accommodating firm of Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo - all too often receives gobs of money from an ill-designed compensation arrangement.
Buffett went on to explain how these consultants simply make outsized pay in any industry the norm by ratcheting up the average, so that all executives in a given “peer group” have to get what everyone else gets:
Additionally, the committee is told about new perks that other managers are receiving. In this manner, outlandish “goodies” are showered upon CEOs simply because of a corporate version of the argument we all used when children: “But, Mom, all the other kids have one.” When comp committees follow this “logic,” yesterday’s most egregious excess becomes today’s baseline.
During his talk a year ago at the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting, when Buffett called these compensation consultants prostitutes, his vice chairman Charles Munger objected. “Prostitution would be a step up for them,” Munger said.
I came across this ratchet phenomenon when I reported my story about soaring health care costs in the March 4 issue of Time. I asked an executive at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center how it was that executives at hospitals like his make so much more than people in similar positions at other large nonprofit organizations. As an example I used the fact that Sloan Kettering’s chief fundraiser makes $1,483,000, compared to $392,000 for the chief fundraiser at Harvard. His answer was disarmingly, if alarmingly, candid: “All of us hospitals have the same compensation consultants, so I guess it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” By which he meant that if the same consultants are setting salaries across the hospital industry, then they will define the average in the peer group, and, of course, they can keep defining it up.
In honor of Buffett having just concluded his latest shareholder love-fest in Omaha last weekend, Reuters, Bloomberg, or the Wall Street Journal ought to do a major project on compensation consultants. Who dominates the setting of executive pay in which industries? How do they do their work? On what basis do they get paid? How do they deal with conflicts? Does any firm puncture the stereotype of Buffett’s Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo?
In fact, the best story would be one that finds a compensation consultant who is well known for advising board compensation committees that their executives are making too much money. Who knows? Maybe there’s someone carving out that specialty working for activist shareholders. Or maybe there’s someone now working at a laundromat or car wash who tried that approach.
2. The coming of Al Jazeera America:
This story from Crain’s Chicago Business reports that “Al Jazeera America, a new U.S.-based extension of the media organization funded by the Qatar government,” is hiring 800 American journalists, including eight reporters and producers for a Chicago bureau, plus 10 other bureaus in cities like Seattle and Dallas, a 120-person Washington office, and a major New York home base. Having spent $500 million to buy Al Gore’s Current TV — which was a business failure but still managed to get placement in tens of millions of cable and satellite TV homes — Qatar is obviously planning to make a serious splash.
So, it’s about time Al Jazeera America got some serious treatment from the press (beyond the stories of Al Gore cashing in with oil money). First, are those numbers — especially the claimed plan to hire 800 journalists — real? That’s almost as many journalists as The New York Times employs around the world.
And who’s really going to decide what they report? Is this likely to be a serious addition to the TV news line-up that will provide welcome, honest competition for cable news channels that are increasingly more about talk and punditry than reporting? Or, are the suspicions of those who see something more sinister in a government, especially a Middle East oil power, financing such a large and well-distributed news channel justified?
3. Crime victims and medical bills: