Wall Street bank executives squirmed this week when the US Congress scolded them for spending slices of the $176 billion in bailout money on perks such as private jets.
But the big test of whether Wall Street brass got the message that high living on the corporate tab is now unacceptable is yet to come.
An avalanche of regulatory filings called proxy statements are set to hit mostly in late March and April. Proxies must go to shareholders before annual meetings and must detail 2008 perks lavished on a company's top five executives.
Banks' major shareholders including pension funds and insurance companies will comb through the filings to see whether the appetite for perks like jetting on the corporate dime and personal cars and drivers has dropped, compensation experts say.
"They want (to see) that the CEO and executives are sharing some of the pain by reducing fixed compensation, salary and benefits, including the perks," said Paul Hodgson, senior research associate at research firm The Corporate Library.
Frustration is growing with pricey trimmings on lofty pay.
"The attitude of ... major shareholders of Wall Street banks is that if you make that much in total compensation, then you should pay for your car and driver, your travel on corporate jets and the installation of a (home) security system," Hodgson said.
An eye-catching example was $233,053 for private car and driver benefits for Goldman Sachs <GS.N> chief executive Lloyd Blankfein, he said.
The Goldman chief's total approved compensation for 2007 was $68.5 million.
RIDING THE RAILS
Farther down the corporate ladder, the rank and file also are seeing cuts in perks.
Goldman Sachs scrapped holiday parties, a spokesman said. And the firm's New York staff must now wait until 10 p.m., one hour later than before, to take a car service home at the company's expense.
In Greenwich, Connecticut, RBS <RBS.L> discourages staff from taking taxis or car services into Manhattan, a spokesman said. It posts train schedules to promote riding the rails.
At Morgan Stanley <MS.N> a source said employees must get additional authorizations for catered staff meetings.
When companies file their proxy statements ahead of their shareholder meetings, they also will have an opportunity to set a new tone in their "forward-looking statements," which will also be scrutinized, compensation experts said.
In recent days, there were signs of thinning corporate largess.
Merrill Lynch said it was getting rid of its helicopter and corporate parent Bank of America <BAC.N> said it was selling three planes. Wells Fargo <WFC.N> suspended employee junkets to destinations such as Las Vegas casinos.
PAYING THEIR WAY
In 2007, the cost of personal aircraft use averaged $113,820 for the chief executives of the 10 largest banks to later receive funds under the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), according to compensation research firm Equilar, citing data from proxy statements.
The average chief executive reaped $454,347 in perks and benefits, including $61,083 for automotive and parking and $26,429 for home and personal security.
"There's a disproportionate focus on perks because they can seem excessive to the average person on an everyday level," said Hay Group executive compensation expert David Wise.
"Corporate jets tend to be the most noticeable sign of perquisites because people compare that to their airport experiences."
(Reporting by Walker Simon; Editing by Mark Egan and Xavier Briand)