It was widely reported yesterday that former CEO of Nabors Industries Ltd., Gene Isenberg, will be the recipient of a $100 million severance payment. Except, he’s not leaving the company—he’s staying on as Chairman of the Board. Confusion and criticism has ensued.
For the most part, I think executive compensation, even outlandish executive compensation, is in principle a private matter. If a bunch of shareholders want to pay their CEO a gazillion dollars—whether because they think he’s the one guy who can build long-term value or because they just think he’s a swell guy—well, that’s none of my business. I may think those shareholders are fools, or spendthrifts. But there’s little reason for me to be morally concerned. I don’t tell you how much to spend on your babysitter or your dry cleaning or your car. And I shouldn’t tell you how much to spend on your CEO.
But two factors get in the way of applying my in-principle argument to the present case.
One factor begins with the observation that shareholders don’t, in fact, generally make the decisions regarding how much total compensation the CEO gets. That task is delegated to the Board of Directors, who in turn generally delegate it to their Compensation Committee. Now again, in principle, this is purely a private matter. If the Board isn’t serving the shareholders well, the shareholders have cause to complain, and (yet again, in principle) they can always fire the Board if they feel sufficiently poorly served. But we have ample evidence that shareholders very often aren’t well-served by boards. Add to that the fact that proper functioning of corporate governance (and hence of capital markets) is clearly a matter of public concern, and you have at least the beginnings of a public-interest argument for interference in what would otherwise be a private matter.
The other reason why excessive pay isn’t always a purely private matter has to do with the government’s (i.e., the public’s) role in, and support of, an industry. Note, for example, that Nabors is an oil-drilling contractor. So the $100 million that Isenberg is getting isn’t merely a share of privately-gained profits. It’s a share of the profits from a heavily-subsidized industry.
So boards of directors do have some public obligations related to how they choose to compensate executives (even if, as I’ve argued before, outsized compensation isn’t automatically unfair). Corporate directors are not just part of private institutions; they’re part of a system justified, in part, by its public benefits. And the more they seek to gain private benefits in the form of subsidies, the greater their obligations to the public become.