High CEO pay doesn’t mean high performance, report says

A select group of the nation’s corporate chief executives has been paid far more than their performance warranted, according to a compensation analysis released today.

Twenty years after the Institute for Policy Studies began taking critical annual looks at CEO pay in the nation’s largest companies, researchers reviewed the personal and corporate histories of executives who have appeared on past highest-paid lists.

The title of the 2013 report reveals disappointment — “Bailed Out. Booted. Busted.”

Nearly 40 percent of the men who appeared on lists ranking America’s 25 highest-paid corporate leaders between 1993 and 2012 have led companies bailed out by U.S. taxpayers, been fired for poor performance or led companies charged with fraud-related activities.

“This report should put an end to any remaining sense that we have ‘pay for performance’ in corporate America,” said Sarah Anderson, co-author of all 20 of the institute’s annual executive compensation reports.

The pay gap between large-company CEOs and average American employees has vaulted from 195 to 1 in 1993 to 354 to 1 in 2012, according to data published by BusinessWeek and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The institute, which describes itself as a progressive think tank that “promotes democracy and challenges concentrated wealth,” reviewed such CEOs as:

• Hank McKinnell, who received $198 million in pay and retirement benefits from Pfizer after a five-year tenure during which the pharmaceutical company’s stock price plunged 40 percent.

• Richard Fuld, who garnered top 25 CEO pay status for eight years running before his company, Lehman Brothers, failed in 2008, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.

• Sanford Weill, whose compensation totaled $1.5 billion in 13 years as CEO of Travelers and subsequently Citigroup. Weill is noted as one of the most aggressive corporate leaders to have lobbied for a repeal of federal regulations, an action that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.

The report includes former Sprint CEO William T. Esrey among executives who were terminated partly for poor performance, estimating the value of his golden parachute at $9 million. Esrey ranked on a top 25 pay list only one year.

Researchers studied 241 CEOs in all, each of whom had ranked for at least one year among the 25 highest-paid corporate leaders. Of those, 22 percent led companies that died or got taxpayer bailouts after the 2008 financial crash, 8 percent lost their jobs involuntarily and 8 percent led companies that ended up paying sizable fraud-related fines or settlements.

Other reports, including those from the Conference Board research organization and the outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, indicate that the average tenure of CEOs in the largest U.S. companies fell last year to 8.1 years. That was down from an average of 10 years in 2000.

John Challenger attributed the CEO tenure decline largely to increased accountability demands from investors and the public.

Separately, a study of 356 large U.S. companies, released this year by the Harvard Business Review, suggested that the optimum CEO tenure was 4.8 years, when measured against company stock performance and other factors.

The new Institute for Policy Studies report concluded that “America’s most highly paid executives over the past two decades have added remarkably little value to anything except their own personal portfolios.”

It said the histories reveal “a stark picture of a pay system that encourages high-risk behavior and lawbreaking at the expense of taxpayers and investors.”

Of the 241 CEOs studied, 134 remain active CEOs in their companies, the report said.

The executives who were fired left with an average payment of $47.7 million, the report said.

Aside from zeroing in on specific performance failures, the report criticized “a giant loophole in the federal tax code” that allows corporations to deduct unlimited amounts on their income taxes for the expense of executive stock options and other “performance-based” pay.

The Economic Policy Institute has estimated that the loophole cost the U.S. Treasury $30.4 billion between 2007 and 2010.

The loophole grew after Congress in 1993 capped the tax deductibility of executive pay at $1 million a year but exempted performance-based pay from the calculation. That led to the delivery of greater CEO pay in stock options instead of salary.

Anderson and her co-authors, Scott Klinger and Sam Pizzigati, called on Congress to close the loophole by passing the Stop Subsidizing Multimillion Dollar Corporate Bonuses Act, which is S 1746, or the Income Equity Act, HR 199.

They also urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to enforce the 3-year-old Dodd-Frank legislation requiring disclosure of CEO-to-worker pay ratios. And they called for greater say-on-pay powers for shareholders.