Goldman Still Mulling Compensation Changes?

A while back, I wrote about how some Goldman Sachs shareholders were angry about the size of its bankers' bonuses. It wasn't really that they were getting paid so much, but that the bank wasn't spreading enough of the love to shareholders, or using the firm's earnings to better insulate shareholders from risk. Since then, Goldman announced that it would pay some of its top employees' bonuses entirely in stock, which would be untouchable for several years to guard against longer-term risk. Yet, the bank didn't decrease the size of any of those bonuses. Although his move wasn't exactly a full concession to those angry shareholders, it might have satisfied some. But according to one of Goldman's board members, the bank may be considering the enormous magnitude of the compensation it provides its bankers as well.

The latest installment of the Big Think's "What Went Wrong" series interviewed Harvard Business School Professor, former CEO of Medtronic and Goldman Sachs board member Bill George. I asked him about this reported shareholder anger. As a board member, I thought he might have an interesting take. Here's what he said:

I'm very concerned about the compensation issues and the public's reaction to that. I frankly think that the public perception is a much bigger issue than the shareholder issue. I think that is a limited group of shareholders. Shareholders seem to be quite pleased with Goldman and there is a linkage between pay and performance and I think as long as we follow our principles of long term pay for long term performance then the firm is going to do well. If it gets back to play, if it goes to a short term game like Citigroup did of paying out large cash bonuses I think that would be a disaster and I don't think you'll see that happening. There is always a question of the amount and I think one has to look at that in relationship to the profits and I think you'll see even that percentage coming down. It's been very high on Wall Street, much higher than any industrial corporation that I know of, but I think those percentages need to be re-looked at and I know the Goldman board and compensation committee in particular are taking a hard look at that right now.

First, I think he's right to be more concerned about public than shareholder perception -- for now. Despite the hoopla made over the report about shareholders' anger, I doubt that it really characterized most, if even many, Goldman shareholders. The vast majority are probably quite happy with Goldman. Its share price is back up to $164, which is well off its high around $235 in 2007, but significantly better than its low of $52 from last year.

But in the long-run, shareholders' opinions should matter a lot more to him as a board member than the public's criticisms. The public has a very short memory. Sure, it's mad at the investment banks now, but once the economy improves, and the financial industry goes back to business as usual, the big banks will leave the spotlight. Without the news outlets reporting about the big banker bonuses, the public will forget. After all, no one much complained about Wall Street bonuses before the crisis.

Then, is there reason to believe that much will come of Goldman's board and compensation committee taking a "hard look" at how much money bankers make on Wall Street? I doubt it. They might make some changes for the time being, but I'd be shocked -- shocked -- if those changes last, unless the government or Federal Reserve requires it.

So while he's right that Wall Street might pay some attention to the public outcry for now, I'm not as optimistic that any changes made will endure -- unless shareholders demand it. And from what he says, and what common sense would dictate, as long as investment bank shareholders continue to enjoy hefty dividends and strong stock performance, most are likely to care very little about how Wall Street's compensation practices compare to other industries.