Recipe for debate over executive compensation:
Take an intractable credit crisis. Add mounting bank failures and the extinction of the independent Wall Street investment bank. Slowly mix in a recession. Pour in massive amounts of corporate bailouts. And deep fry in a $50 billion fraud perpetrated by a once-respected money manager.
There are those in the corporate world who simply can't imagine why someone would ask CEOs to take less money home. And while I'm clearly in the camp that people should be free to earn whatever they can, this is the year that CEOs need to show true leadership by sharing the pain many of their employees are feeling.
On Christmas Eve, the Conference Board said that changes in CEO compensation have already begun. The New York-based economic forecasting group said that nearly all industries are reallocating compensation towards stock and away from total cash compensation and stock options. That makes sense when you consider that the stock prices of nearly every company has cratered over the last year.
But here's an image problem: the Conference Board's Top Executive Compensation report says that median cash compensation increased in more than two thirds of the industries it studied. The biggest gainer? Insurance, up 34.39 percent. Not a great message in a year when the world's biggest property & casualty insurer, American International Group, had to be rescued by the federal government to the tune of $150 billion.
(The only industry to see a decline in median cash comp was construction, with a 22.36 percent decrease.)
CEOs in the food and tobacco industry topped the 22 industries studied with median total compensation of $6.34 million. Of that, cash compensation accounted for $2.7 million.
When the stock market is rising and the economy is expanding, complaints about how much the boss makes never seem to stick. In recession, CEO compensation should fall if that pay is tied to revenue performance. Kevin Hallock, a Cornell University professor who's a co-author of the Conference Board's report, says we won't know how the downturn affected pay until companies start issuing proxy statements in 2009.
And Linda Barrington, research director for the Conference Board, says that companies have to expect that there will be more focus than ever on compensation in the coming year:
"The financial market crisis and U.S. recession have contributed to eroding public trust in business leadership."