Santa Claus came early this year for four former executives of Washington Mutual, which failed in 2008. The executives reached a settlement with the FDIC, which sued them for taking huge financial risks while “knowing that the real estate market was in a ‘bubble.’ ” The FDIC had sought to recover $900 million, but the executives have just settled for $64 million, almost all of which will be paid by their insurers; their out-of-pockets costs are estimated at just $400,000. To be sure, the executives lost their jobs and now must drop claims for additional compensation. But, according to the FDIC, the four still earned more than $95 million from January 2005 through September 2008. This is what happens when financial executives are compensated for “return on equity” unadjusted for risk. The executives get the upside when things go well; when the downside risks materialize, they lose nothing (or close to it).
Just thinking aloud here, but if bank executives were compensated based on return on assets (i.e., the returns to both debt and equity), rather than return on equity, a lot of the misaligned incentives in their pay packages would go away. Among other things, it would discourage races to the bottom.