New York Stock Exchange
is willing to take a lot of pain to keep Richard Grasso as its chairman. But its patience in the face of an increasingly media-savvy opposition is not unlimited.
For now, even the NYSE board members said to be most upset over Grasso's big payday aren't calling for his hide, several sources said. But that could change if the controversy surrounding the NYSE chairman doesn't soon abate.
Two board members,
Chief Executive Philip Purcell and
J.P. Morgan Chase
Chief Executive William Harrison, were said to be irate after learning last week that Grasso almost received $48 million more compensation on top of the $139.5 million package announced two weeks ago. The Wall Street executives are still fuming over the fact that they didn't learn about the extra $48 million until the day before Grasso announced he wouldn't accept it.
But Harrison, for one, isn't ready to push Grasso aside just yet, sources said. Like other NYSE board members, Harrison remains supportive of Grasso and believes he's done a good job, even if the Big Board fumbled the matter of his compensation.
Love Is Like a Cloud
The main danger for the NYSE is that the drip of revelation about Grasso will blot out any and all other news about the Big Board. If that happens, the board may have no choice but to dump Grasso -- or ask him to fall on his sword -- because the controversy will undermine his effectiveness as leader of the world's best-known stock exchange.
"There aren't too many who have weathered this kind of storm lately,'' said Paul Hodgson of the Corporate Library, a corporate governance advocacy group. "The reason why the issue is not going away is because he is supposed to be setting an example for the rest of corporate America.''
The bad news for the NYSE is the controversy doesn't appear to be letting up.
A dissident group of NYSE members wants the board to boot Grasso and is trying its best to fan the flames of discontent. If Grasso isn't removed, the group intends to mount a campaign to unseat the entire 27-member board, or expand its roster to elect their own representatives.
Holds a Lot of Rain
A person familiar with the group said the dissidents want to give the board an opportunity to remove Grasso or urge him to resign for the good of the institution. That's partly because an attempt by the dissidents to topple the board is seen as a long shot.
The dissidents are floating the name of William McDonough, former New York Federal Reserve president and chairman of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, as a possible successor.
They also want the board to remove Kenneth Langone, a longtime NYSE director and co-founder of
, who led the Big Board compensation committee during the time that most of Grasso's deferred compensation was negotiated.
Langone's role on the NYSE board is almost as controversial as Grasso's big payday. Critics have long seen a potential conflict of interest in Grasso serving on the board Home Depot, including the hardware chain's compensation and corporate governance committee.
Meanwhile, the Senate Banking Committee is planning to discuss the Grasso pay controversy during a Sept. 30 hearing, focusing on the securities business. The lone witness at the Senate hearing will be
Securities and Exchange Commission
Chairman William Donaldson, who held the NYSE's top job immediately before Grasso, and has been highly critical of his successor's compensation deal.
Really Learned a Lot
Many on Wall Street do, in fact, doubt Grasso will be able to survive the heat for much longer. Some are comparing his plight to that of former SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt, who resigned last year following a series of highly public gaffes.
"There's no denying there's been a sea change of opinion about Grasso," said Bill Singer, a New York securities lawyer who often represents clients before NYSE arbitration panels. "I think the writing is on the wall. I don't think Grasso can survive this current onslaught."
Not helping Grasso's cause are reports that many of the NYSE's 1,500 employees are livid over his compensation deal. Most NYSE employees haven't gotten a pay raise in two years, several people said. The NYSE wouldn't comment on any salary freeze.
Grasso also can't count on the NYSE board to stick by him forever. Most board members, while insisting Grasso is entitled to the $139.5 million, believe the NYSE has handled the situation poorly and provided ammunition to its critics.
Even Internet gamblers are betting that Grasso's days at the NYSE are numbered. Tradesports.com, an Irish-based Web site for betting on sporting and political events, reports that 44% of online bettors think Grasso will resign by the end of December, up from 35% at the end of last week.