Why Wall Street Chief Executives All Get Paid The Same Thing (Maybe)

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Earlier today we mentioned Graef Crystal’s column speculating about why the pay packages of Wall Street’s chief executives were so similar despite notable differences in the size of the institutions they manage. Crystal’s question is fair, especially since CEO pay largely tracks that of the firms they manage. Why should this pattern break down on Wall Street?
Crystal posits a couple of image—the smoky backroom, the circled wagons—none of which are very flattering to our leading financial institutions. His idea is that there is safety in numbers—if they all pay around the same thing to the top guys, who’s going to complain?
That’s not such a bad answer, really. And may well explain some of the psychology of the compensation committees. But it is, of course, just speculation. And it’s not clear that this is the only explanation available, or the most obvious.
In fact, if you understand why CEO pay is positively correlated with firm size you can quickly grasp why this doesn’t work out so well on Wall Street. In the broader corporate America, CEOs of larger companies are paid more not because there is some metaphysical connection between the size of a company and the size of a paycheck but because the biggest companies are in fierce competition to attract the top talent. Whether or not CEOs really are what make or break companies, the boards of directors of American companies believe this is true and are willing to pay up for this belief.
Which brings us to Wall Street, where the competition is fierce to hire top CEOs across the range of firm sizes and faith in the leadership principle is stronger than ever. Bear Stearns might be playing catch-up with the larger Lehman Brothers but the two banks are still competitors. Just because Bear Stearns is smaller doesn’t mean it can afford to hire a second-rate CEO on the cheap. The size-comp relationship breaks down on Wall Street, in other words, because the little guys need to constantly worry that the big guys will poach their executives.
There are big fish on Wall Street, and there are bigger fish. But they’re all swimming in the same pond, and to catch them you’ve got to use the same bait. And around here we have a word for the special bait used: it’s called “money.”
What Are They Smoking? The Wall Street Executive Pay Problem