Though the economy still looks plenty fragile, one group remains far, far removed from the sense of financial insecurity assailing so many average Americans. In fact, the paydays enjoyed by top CEOs may be edging higher than ever.
The Wall Street Journal recently cited Hay Group data indicating that the median pay for the chief executive officers of 350 big companies shot 11% higher in 2010. Viacom's (NYSE: VIA ) CEO Philippe Dauman came in on top of its "Highest Paid" list, with annual pay valued at a whopping $84.3 million -- double his compensation the year before.
The disconnect between CEO pay and the economic reality facing the rest of America may actually be even more dramatic than that. According to compensation research firm Equilar, CEO pay actually jetted 24% higher in 2010, to about $9 million for the typical S&P 500 CEO. Furthermore, CEO paychecks were even better than they were in pre-recession 2007.
In other words, while many Americans still feel like they're suffering from economic recession, CEOs (who even at their worst moments usually get paid pretty darn well) have somehow managed to recover from the hard times with astounding speed.
Given the painful state of the overall economy, data like this can come across as galling. In fairness, a CEO who does a great job heading up a company that's truly outperforming on many levels should receive handsome rewards. But in far too many cases, companies' CEOs simply aren't worth it.
Red flags waving
Corporate governance experts, shareholder activists, and proxy advisory firms have flagged problems in plenty of companies' executive compensation policies this year. Investors large and small should be paying close attention.
Corporate governance experts GovernanceMetrics International named several companies whose compensation policies allegedly show little or no relationship to performance, over both short- and long-term time frames. Its list of shame includes Aetna (NYSE: AET ) and FirstEnergy (NYSE: FE ) .
As of May 16, Institutional Shareholder Services, a major proxy advisory firm, has recommended that shareholders vote against the compensation plans at 239 companies in the Russell 3000 -- representing 12.3% of the companies it reviewed this year. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) are just two of the companies that earned this negative recommendation.
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has also waged several major campaigns against companies such as Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) and ConocoPhillips this year, citing a lack of performance and urging shareholders to vote against CEO pay policies.
The only cost-cut companies don't love
Without solid performance to back it up, the expense of exorbitant CEO pay could prove too costly to your investments. Companies' eagerness to cut every cost except those incurred by the folks at the top should leave shareholders seeing red.
Join us in the week ahead, as Fool.com contributors profile a different company each day and question whether its CEO deserves the big bucks. If not, we'll suggest actions that concerned shareholders can take. Meanwhile, feel free to nominate your picks for overpaid CEOs -- or leaders who actually deserve every penny they get -- in the comments below.