Tyco and Executive Excess

The profligacy of the former Tyco International chief executive and its chief financial officer have become legend: a $2 million toga party for the ex-CEO's wife and a $6,000 shower curtain - all part of the $600 million which the two men allegedly looted from Tyco.

Jurors in the Tyco International trial, the court case that has come to symbolize executive excess in the roaring '90s, are either lurching toward a verdict - or, as it appeared Friday, a hung jury.

No matter how the Tyco case ends up, it has at least served to focus attention on executive compensation as well as on the growing disparity between pay for top dogs and that of their workers. That spotlight has been needed because corporate boards have hardly responded in a uniform way to reform exaggerated executive compensation.

The only overall change taking hold is that many companies are starting to count stock options - a popular compensation tool in the booming dot.com days - as expenses. Such truth-in-reporting admits that these giveaways potentially cost a company.

Individually, several large companies have undertaken some admirable reforms. In December, Delta Airlines agreed to submit executive severance packages to shareholders for approval if the packages exceed a certain limit.

After two years of poor economic performance and pay cuts in the executive suite, Business Week estimates that compensation for 2003 will show a rebound of 10 to 15 percent. This appears to be in line with net income growth of 18 percent for Standard & Poor's 500 companies.

Wall Street, however, seems to have returned to the '90s era, with the chief executives of Citigroup and Merrill Lynch receiving their biggest paychecks ever: $44 million for Citigroup's Sanford Weill and $28 million for Merrill Lynch's E. Stanley O'Neal.

Not that there's anything wrong with generously rewarding a job well done. But even in this climate of rebound, a handful of companies (MetLife, American Express, and MBNA Corporation) are reviewing their overall pay, and actually cutting pay in the face of better performance.

Certainly, it is not up to Congress to judge what is excessive compensation, as it did with loophole-ridden measures in the '90s (though its post-Enron corporate reform law righted a wrong by forbidding executives to use their companies for personal loans).

Shareholders can play a watchdog role in corporate compensation. The Securities and Exchange Commission is weighing a rule that would allow shareholders to put their own choices up for executive board members. This runs the risk of a company hijacked by a renegade group of shareholders, but it may be worth the benefits of greater independence in the board room. It could certainly serve as a reality check when it comes to compensation excesses.

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