If recent polls hold, Eliot Spitzer will be New York City’s next comptroller. Given he was known as the “Sheriff of Wall Street” during his tenure as Attorney General, many in the industry fear what a “Comptroller Spitzer” will mean for Wall Street.
But it’s not just the financial services industry that should be paying attention. Should he win the election, Spitzer will be responsible for overseeing nearly $140 billion of pension funds and a diverse portfolio of assets.
As comptroller, Spitzer says he will be an activist investor, although he’s quick to point out it won’t be in the political sense.
Spitzer plans to practice “activism in the sense of improving corporate governance,” as detailed in his new book Protecting Capitalism Case by Case.
Among other issues, he plans to focus on CEO pay. Given the average U.S. CEO’s pay is now over 200 times the average worker’s – up from 42-to-1 in 1980 – that’s an issue likely to resonate with, say, 99% of the population.
“If the market is working properly, CEOs will be paid based on competitive environment,” he tells me in the accompanying interview. “But the system has become ingrown and there is not a meaningful set of standards [for executive compensation]. There are too many conflicts of inherent in the way it works.”
Spitzer is also focused on the “failure of shareholders” to participate in corporate governance and has a not-so subtle message for the big mutual fund families.
“Institutional shareholders in particular have not done what is their obligation to do – fulfilling their fiduciary duty to speak on behalf of good governance by insuring companies pick good board members and the right risk management processes are in place,” he sais.
Stressing the point that he’s not just focused on the financial services industry, Spitzer uses General Motors (GM) as an example of a company that has suffered from a failure of shareholder participation.
“The issues that beguiled GM...that led to GM's failure over many years are obviously a complicated set of issues,” he says. “But shareholders should’ve been participating, saying ‘Wait a minute we see what’s happening.’ If management isn’t doing it, shareholders have an obligation to step in.”
The message here is clear: If big shareholders don’t ‘step in’, a future ‘Comptroller Spitzer’ will be there to give them a not-so-gentle nudge.