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More Signs of Inflation: CEO Paychecks?

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If you're looking for signs of inflation, CEO paychecks may be a clear indicator -- depending on whom you ask.

In its most recent CEO pay study, The Wall Street Journal has revealed that top execs' compensation has once again started growing. (Just last spring, WSJ reported that CEO pay had dipped.) But corporate governance watchdogs The Corporate Library have offered less alarming findings in the CEO pay arena.

Up, up, up!
A few factors caused the quick reversal in the WSJ's CEO pay data. First off, higher stock prices in the short term increased CEOs' overall compensation, since they change the value of stock and options.

Meanwhile, the new pool of companies for this report included different businesses that provided a fuller view of the latest fiscal year. Many of these companies collectively increased profits and sales. (It's not clear how much of that gain stems from the difficult economic situation over the last couple years -- in other words, easy comparisons rather than actual operational excellence.)

Here's the WSJ's list of high earners and their compensation, some of whom may sound surprising:

  • Liberty Media's Gregory Maffei ($87.1 million)
  • Oracle's (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) Larry Ellison ($68.6 million)
  • Occidental Petroleum's (NYSE: OXY  ) Ray Irani ($52.2 million)
  • Yahoo!'s (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) Carol Bartz ($44.6 million)
  • CBS's (NYSE: CBS  ) Les Moonves ($37.6 million)

My Foolish colleague Rick Munarriz took a close look at this list earlier this week, wondering whether these particular CEOs are really worth the big bucks, and offered Foolish readers a poll to vote on which was most overpaid.

Er, not so much...
The Corporate Library's own serving of data on CEO pay this week, using its own methodology, reached a different conclusion. According to its data, CEO compensation just "treaded water," rising only 1.63% versus the Journal's 3% figure. When The Corporate Library crunched the data related to options and vested stock, the result was an actual 0.28% decline in compensation.

The Corporate Library's research included more than 2,700 companies, a far larger number than those in the WSJ's grouping of 456 of the largest companies in the U.S. Therefore, The Corporate Library also identified a completely different top earner, Danaher's (NYSE: DHR  ) Henry Lawrence Culp, who pocketed a whopping $141 million, mostly from options and stock. Even more notably, he was a surprising addition, having never appeared in the top of the list before.

The Corporate Library also revealed its findings that CEO perks at S&P 500 firms dropped by a median of 18% in 2009. It's nice to see more companies scaling back some of the outrageous benefits that egregiously waste shareholder money.

In defense of a little rational pay deflation
Regardless, outrageous CEO pay is hardly yesterday's issue. Even while tough economic times have left many folks struggling financially, average CEO pay was still 263 times that of the average worker in 2009.

The last thing serious shareholders want to see is inflation in unworthy CEOs' paychecks. Although there are clearly conflicting indicators about the direction of CEO pay at the moment, it doesn't change the fact that excessive compensation squanders shareholders' capital, even in good times.

There's no time like the present for shareholders to think about sticking a pin in some of the market's most overinflated compensation packages. For underperforming CEOs collecting overstuffed pay, a little deflation would be a good thing.

Check back at every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.

The Fool owns shares of Oracle. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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