Rhetoric and Reality on Pay

The Wall Street Journal has a nice analysis on pay czar Kenneth Feinberg’s plan to restrict compensation at seven corporate-welfare cases, finding that in fact base pay will rise—sometimes sharply. But it makes a bit too much hay out of its findings.

WSJ Deputy Managing Editor Alan Murray says on Twitter that “pay rhetoric doesn’t match the reality of his plan,” which is the feeling you take away from the story. But I’m not quite sure it shows that.

After all, the increased base salaries don’t change what has already been reported: That total compensation will be cut in half. Tell those getting 50 percent while they’re non-government-owned pals are making record bucks about the rhetoric and reality of that.

And a good deal of the impetus for pay reform was compensation structure, which incentivized short-term wagers. Whatever you think about the total amount of pay, increasing salaries while decreasing cash bonuses doesn’t do that and it might have other intangible benefits. Would you rather be sold a car by somebody on salary or by somebody on commission?

Mr. Hodgson said he was “flabbergasted” to learn of the boosts to base pay. “It’s inconsistent with his broader mission” of tying pay to long-term performance, he said.

In the meantime, as the Journal reports, the pay czar gutted cash compensation (including bonuses) by 90 percent. That’s more a measure of how out of whack these companies’ pay policies were than of some inconsistency here.

Despite all this, the pay “crackdown” is still much ado about not much.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.