Corporate executives enjoyed a very lucrative 2010. In its 2011 edition of Executive PayWatch, released earlier this week, the AFL-CIO highlighted the state of CEO pay for the previous year.
According to the AFL-CIO's data on 299 S&P 500 companies, CEO pay averaged almost $11.4 million in 2010, representing a 23% increase over last year. Combined pay for these companies' CEOs totaled $3.4 billion in that time frame.
The AFL-CIO has long kept an eye on the major pay disparity between CEOs and the average worker. In 1980, CEOs made, on average, 42 times the money the average worker did. In 2000, that compensation gap had skyrocketed to 525 times.
That pay differential fell to 343 times the average worker's wage last year, but even that gap represents an astronomical disparity with a disappointing conclusion. The harrowing financial crisis has apparently failed to knock any fiscal sense into corporate America's upper echelons, even while the economy struggles to recover and many American workers remain unemployed or underemployed.
Parting is such sweet sorrow -- at least for CEOs
The AFL-CIO's report called out several corporate "case studies" to consider. As proxy season progresses, we'll surely see many more.
One particularly galling example involves beleaguered drugstore chain Rite Aid (NYSE: RAD ) . As longtime investors know only too well, Rite Aid hasn't produced an annual profit since the fiscal year that ended in March 2007. It's also got a chilling $6.1 billion in long-term debt and just $91 million in cash on its balance sheet.
This company's chances of thriving, even surviving, look slim. Drugstore chain rivals like CVS Caremark (NYSE: CVS ) and Walgreen (NYSE: WAG ) have proven formidable contenders, while grocers and huge discounters such as Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) and Target (NYSE: TGT ) also provide pharmacy services and peddle similar items. At this point, many folks think a takeover may be Rite Aid's best, if not only, outcome.
But though management has failed to conquer any of this company's longstanding problems, Rite Aid's former CEO and current Chairwoman Mary Sammons still enjoys a pretty sweet deal. Sammons stepped down as CEO last year, having headed up the company since June 2003, a time frame in which Rite Aid's share price dropped 80%. Nonetheless, Sammons received $3.2 million in compensation in 2010 -- even though she vacated the CEO position in June.
Furthermore, Sammons will still receive a $750,000 base salary and the possibility of a $1.5 million bonus in her continuing role heading Rite Aid's board of directors. Worse yet, her golden parachute pretty much guarantees that she'll do fine, whatever befalls Rite Aid. If she departs following a change of control, her severance benefits include $9 million in cash, as well as more than $1 million in health benefits, supplemental pension benefits, and stock options and restricted stock.
Another interesting case study involved William Pulte, the former chairman of PulteGroup (NYSE: PHM ) . Although he retired from the chairman role in February 2010, the company has kept him on as a consultant, paying him a $3.3 million lump sum and promising $1.5 million more to work as a consultant for no more than 300 hours a year.
The AFL-CIO pointed out that the construction industry has taken a huge hit in the aftermath of the housing bust. So has PulteGroup's stock price, which has fallen 75%. However, if you're a high-ranking executive, apparently you can still land a sweet gig making $5,000 an hour.
Paying for failure: a self-fulfilling prophecy
Clearly, even the end of a disastrous tenure for some underperforming corporate leaders includes outsized rewards. Such cases should enrage shareholders -- or anyone with a basic sense of decency. Investors must realize that this issue isn't even just about plunging stock prices and ruined investments. It's also about the massive amount of their money getting plowed into the pockets of folks who not only haven't helped a business's prospects, but have also sometimes steered their companies into trouble.
The AFL-CIO is yet another voice reminding shareholders that outrageous disconnects still exist, and that shareholders can use their new "say on pay" privileges to voice dissatisfaction with such companies' policies when they vote their proxies this year. (The union also pointed out that the Dodd-Frank Act's coming mandate that companies disclose pay disparity data between corporate CEOs and their median employees will offer another very eye-opening data point.)
Needless to say, many investors won't agree with the AFL-CIO on all issues pertaining to public companies, but this particular topic is a logical and rational place to find common ground. Outrageous pay for underperforming CEOs wastes financial resources that could be better directed elsewhere. Investors who condone lavish pay for failure run a major risk of dooming their portfolios to similarly dire outcomes.
Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.