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Holding CEOs Accountable—A Commentary by Jonathan Macey ’82

The following commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal on December 9, 2008.

Holding CEOs Accountable; Corporate boards are often the last to see what's wrong.
By Jonathan Macey ’82

The failure of the General Motors board of directors to fire CEO Richard Wagoner provides a rare glimpse into the inner-workings of big-time corporate boards of directors. The sight is not pretty.

When Mr. Wagoner took the helm eight years ago the stock was trading at around $60 per share. The stock had fallen to around $11 per share before the current financial crisis. It's now below $5 per share.

In 2007, Mr. Wagoner's compensation rose 64% to almost $16 million in a year when the company lost billions. The board has been a staunch backer of Mr. Wagoner despite consistent erosion of market share and losses of $10.4 billion in 2005 and $2 billion in 2006. In 2007 GM posted a loss of $68.45 a share, or $38.7 billion -- the biggest ever for any auto maker anywhere.

The GM board is now reportedly meeting several times a week. But beneath the appearance of activity, nothing is happening at GM other than the company's poorly articulated pleas for a government bailout and threats of dire consequences if GM is not bailed out.

When Connecticut's Sen. Chris Dodd mentioned that Mr. Wagoner might have to go, GM spokesman Steve Harris was quick to defend him: "GM employees, dealers, suppliers and the GM board of directors feel strongly that Rick is the right guy to lead GM through this incredibly difficult and challenging time."

The average pay for chief executives of large public companies in the United States is now well over $10 million a year. Top corporate executives in the United States get about three times more than their counterparts in Japan and more than twice as much as their counterparts in Western Europe. In my new book "Corporate Governance: Promises Made, Promises Broken," I argue that executive compensation is too high in the U.S. because the process by which executive compensation is determined has been corrupted by acquiescent, pandering and otherwise "captured" boards of directors.

Like parents unable to view their children objectively, boards reject statistical reality and almost always view their firms as above average. Because directors participate in corporate decision-making, they inevitably take ownership of the strategies that the corporation pursues. In doing so, directors become incapable of evaluating management and strategies in a detached manner.

As board tenure lengthens, it becomes increasingly less likely that boards will remain independent of the managers they are charged with monitoring. The capture problem is exacerbated by the incentives of managers to develop close personal ties with directors. Mr. Wagoner has had 10 years to cultivate his board. Of the 13 "independent" directors on the board, eight of them have served with Mr. Wagoner since 2003.

Once an opinion, such as the opinion that a CEO is doing a good job, becomes ingrained in the minds of a board of directors, the possibility of altering those beliefs decreases substantially. All too often, it is only when an outsider takes an objective look does anybody realize the obvious: That the directors of a company are generally the last people to recognize management failure.

We need to encourage market solutions -- not bureaucratic ones -- as the best strategy for addressing the corporate governance failures we face today. Hedge funds and activist investors like Carl Icahn are the solution, not the problem. The market for corporate control should be deregulated and the SEC's restrictions on all sorts of equity trading should be lifted at once.

Little if anything has changed at GM since dissident director H. Ross Perot dubbed his board colleagues "pet rocks" for their blind support of then CEO Roger Smith. The broader problem is that there are far too many pet rocks on the boards of other U.S. companies.

Mr. Macey is a law professor at Yale and author of "Corporate Governance: Promises Made, Promises Broken" (Princeton University Press).