Jeff makes the point that when you see one of these corporate disasters, there's usually an executive pay issue lurking in the background. If I had to pick one indicator of the strength of a company's corporate governance, it would be executive pay, simply because it's where the temptation is greatest.
For many years Graef Crystal was a voice in the wilderness on this issue, but now mainstream academics are documenting some of his claims. In November Lucian Bebchuk of Harvard Law School and Jesse Fried of Boalt published a book version of their academic work on executive pay. Like Crystal, they find that levels of executive pay don't correlate with observable measures of performance. They also find a trend of rising pay as a percentage of earnings: They calculate the top five executives at the average company got pay equal to 4.8% of earnings in 1993-1995. By 2001-2003 that figure had more than doubled, to 10.3%.
They have also written a paper criticizing Raines's pay at Fannie Mae. Since Fannnie Mae is a large holding for social investors (#22 in the Domini Fund, #7 in KLD Social Select), this should be more than a passing concern.
I'm voting proxies at the moment and see plenty of resolutions on executive pay, but they usually have significant flaws. Many are overly prescriptive or punitive, others would be easily circumvented. Governance experts and social investors need a better plan for dealing with this important issue.
The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article on this, including some commentary on Calvert's recent initiatives, here.