The Treasury Department has released new guidelines on executive compensation and other expenditures—including provisions related to meetings and travel—for companies participating in the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the name given to the $700 billion government bailout program devised by the Bush Administration last fall. According to The Wall Street Journal, as of February 4 there were 362 firms—mostly banks and other financial services companies—participating in the program.
TARP fund recipients will have to adopt a companywide policy on expenditures related to aviation services, office and facility renovations, entertainment and holiday parties, and conferences and events, and the Treasury Department will require certification by chief executive officers for expenditures that could be viewed as excessive or luxury items.
The policy “is not intended to cover reasonable expenditures for sales conferences, staff development, reasonable performance incentives, and other measures tied to a company's normal business operations,” according to the guidelines
While it’s uncertain what impact these guidelines will have on meetings—what’s the definition of “reasonable”?—it is clear that public perception is a major issue for the meetings/business travel industry. The expenditures specified in the guidelines, such as aviation services, office renovations, and conferences, are those that have received extensive media attention recently.
For example, last month it was learned that John Thain, the last CEO of Merrill Lynch before its merger with Bank of America, reportedly spent $1.2 million redecorating his Merrill Lynch office while the once great investment bank was crashing. Then, in late January, Citigroup—the recipient of $45 billion in TARP funds— confirmed plans to go ahead with the purchase of a $50 million luxury corporate jet, then changed course after being pilloried by, among others, President Obama. And last fall, AIG was forced to cancel more than 160 meetings and events after it was blasted for holding an incentive at a California resort after receiving $85 billion in government bailout funds.
Meetings and business travel have also become congressional targets. The Treasury guidelines seem to replicate Senate Bill 133, or the TARP Transparency Reporting Act, introduced in January by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D, Calif.). This bill would require that, within 30 days of its enactment, the Secretary of the Treasury publish corporate governance principles and ethical guidelines for recipients of emergency economic assistance, including guidelines governing such areas as the hosting of events, the use of corporate aircraft, expenses relating to office or facility renovations, or relocations and entertainment.