Sunday, March 09, 2008

A hearing without a crime

President Bush is waging a war in Iraq that some say will cost our treasury $2-trillion when all is said and done. Meanwhile the economy is tanking here at home. Yet our congress can find nothing better to do than to stifle free enterprise.

The oversight and government committee from the House called a hearing on CEO compensation packages Friday. The chairman of the committee, Henry Waxman (D), clearly appeared convinced that he had a criminal lineup in front of him: Angelo Mozilo, founder and CEO of Countrywide Financial; Stan O'Neal, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch; and Chuck Prince, former CEO of Citigroup. Waxman's problem was that it is not unlawful for a CEO to be compensated with an income many times greater than that of their lowest paid employees.

Nonetheless, that did not stop him from asking questions like, "When companies fail to perform, should they give millions of dollars to their senior executives?" Stan O'Neal easily explained this away with assertions like "The reality is that I received no severance package. I received no bonus for 2007, no severance pay, no golden parachute. The amount discussed in the press consisted mainly of deferred compensation, stock and options that I earned during the years prior to 2007."

The committee also wanted to know why Angelo Mozilo sold many of his shares in Countrywide shortly before their values plummeted. Mozilo responded that, "The goal was to reduce my holdings because of my retirement ... almost all my net worth was in Countrywide." He was following the most basic rule of investing: diversify your portfolio. Mozilo made it clear that he was completely transparent about his divestiture so shareholders new that he was selling Countrywide stock -- they were free to use that information as a warning that they should be selling theirs at the same time if they wanted to.

As would be expected in this political environment, the hearing was partisan in that it was the Democrats trying to find something to pin on the CEOs. But there was no allegation of predatory lending practices by any of their firms. In fact, in all of the acts that the left side of the committee claimed the CEOs had perpetrated to try and shame them, not one was illegal.

At least the GOP members of the committee showed some sense. Representative Darryl Issa from California wrapped up the hearings nicely when he stated to chairman Waxman, "Mr. chairman, I look forward to finding if something is wrong here. So far you haven't found it."

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