Wall Street fat cats fear the pay czar

Kenneth Feinberg will soon rule on pay plans for top employees at seven big bailout recipients. It looks like they may be in for a rude awakening.

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By David Ellis, CNNMoney.com staff writer

Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg has been actively reviewing pay plans for the top 25 highest-paid employees at the seven biggest bailout firms as the Obama administration's pay czar.
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- President Obama's "pay czar" will soon decide whether top executives at firms that received the most assistance from the government during last year's financial crisis are making too much money.

By month's end, Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington attorney who up until six months ago was known by few on Wall Street, is expected to rule on pay packages for the 5 most senior executives at Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) and AIG (AIG, Fortune 500) as well as 20 other highly compensated executives at those firms.

Feinberg is also expected to weigh in on plans for senior executives at Chrysler, Chrysler Financial, General Motors and GMAC, the former financing arm of GM, before moving onto the next 75 highest paid employees at those seven companies.

Here's a glimpse of what we can expect:

Who is in his cross hairs?

When the Obama administration first unveiled plans to review compensation packages in June, the aim was to curb runaway pay practices at the seven firms that took the most in bailout funds.

Hoping that some oversight might push these companies to return taxpayer money sooner rather than later, the Treasury Department gave Feinberg authority on compensation packages on the 100 highest paid employees at each of these seven firms.

There are already signs that those 700 individuals may be in for a rude awakening.

Last week, outgoing Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis said he would not accept a salary or bonus for 2009. The bank said the decision came after Feinberg "suggested" it to Lewis, and followed an uproar over indications that Lewis is poised to walk away with a minimum of $53 million in pension benefits after he retires.

Feinberg has also recommended that AIG withhold some of the $198 million in retention payments owed to workers in the company's Financial Products division, the unit that led to the company's near collapse.

Few details are expected to emerge from Feinberg's initial ruling though. Treasury officials have indicated they won't disclose names of the employees that are being reviewed -- or the specifics of their payment plans -- without an individual's approval.

However, it seems likely that most of the 700 employees will face some major changes to how they are paid.

Instead of large salaries and cash bonuses, many of the executives may wind up with more deferred forms of compensation, such as restricted stock that vests over a number of years.

To that end, Feinberg signed off on a $10.5 million pay package for new AIG chief executive officer Robert Benmosche this month that included $4 million in stock options that he will not be able to sell until August 2014.

But in some instances, there may be little excessive pay for Feinberg to cut.

AIG has already revised pay packages out of fear of how both Washington and American taxpayers might react. In June, the company said it would limit salary increases both for its top seven executives and the next tier of senior management.

And some high-profile CEOs have also taken it upon themselves to act before the government did. Citigroup chief Vikram Pandit, for example, declared earlier this year that he would accept pay of just $1 a year and no bonus until his firm returned to profitability.

Just a year ago, Pandit took home $10.8 million in salary stock and options.

How aggressively can he act?

There are also clear limits to Feinberg's authority. Under powers granted to him by the Treasury Department, he cannot set pay levels for employees at bailout firms. Rather, he simply has the power to review and either approve, or reject, an employee's compensation package.

What's more, employees making less than $500,000 in total annual compensation will not face any scrutiny.

One ongoing concern among bailed-out firms is whether Feinberg will push them to revise previously agreed to bonuses or retention awards that were promised before Feb. 17 of this year.

But speaking at a conference sponsored by the National Association of Corporate Directors in Washington Tuesday, Feinberg said he is "extremely reluctant" to invalidate employment contracts.

Feinberg has also had to consider how his compensation rulings affect the ability of these seven firms to attract and retain talent.

Citigroup and Bank of America, for example, have scrambled in recent months to figure out how to halt the flight of some of their best employees to rivals that have already paid back bailout funds, such as JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), and foreign firms as Deutsche Bank.

General Motors' efforts to find a replacement for its chief financial officer Ray Young has reportedly run into problems over Feinberg's unwillingness to allow the company to pay more than $1 million in annual salary, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Finally, Feinberg's upcoming ruling could also have a big impact on the scores of smaller firms that have received bailout funds.

Currently, the only compensation restriction facing the hundreds of other banks that got taxpayer aid are related to incentive payments. Bonuses paid to senior executives and other highly-paid employees at all companies that took bailout money are limited to one third of their total compensation.

But banks and other financial firms that took money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, have been actively evaluating their pay programs to ensure they are safe from leering government eyes.

"Everyone is interested in hearing the 'blueprint' and guidelines that he is setting for these large companies," said Susan O'Donnell, managing director at compensation consultancy Pearl Meyer & Partners.  To top of page

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