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Why Is Anyone Paying Retention Bonuses in Today's Economy?

posted by Adam Levitin

Wall Street Journal today has a story about Hertz having paid out $16 million in retention bonuses before filing for bankruptcy. It seems that several other firms have done the same recently.

In normal times, a retention bonus isn't a crazy idea--there are downsides to remaining employed at a bankrupt company, particularly the uncertainty about the company's future--will it survive, in what form, and under what management? An employee might reasonable look at other employment options if bankruptcy looms. 

But in today's economy, I have trouble seeing a justification for paying retention bonuses for executives. With real unemployment at nearly 25% and few firms hiring (and certainly not rental car companies), the alternative to sticking with the bankrupt company is likely unemployment, not a similar position at another firm. The bonuses just look like corporate waste (and perhaps self-dealing). But if I had to guess, given their size, they'll go unchallenged, whether because of terms of the carve-out for the official committee in the DIP financing or because of a release in the plan.  

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