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Many CEOs receive ridiculous perks on top of astronomical pay -- including the notorious corporate jet. Most of us "little people" just can't fathom why a CEO needs a company's jet for personal business. If you're an investor, this policy's just one more way to waste your money.
Worse yet, this particular perk may add injury to insult. New research suggests that companies with corporate jet perks are often flying into the potential turbulence of shoddy corporate governance.
Flying below the performance radar
Corporate governance research firm GovernanceMetrics International (GMI) just issued a new report on corporate jet perks. It finds that when CEOs get corporate jets for personal travel on the company's dime, the odds that their companies will adopt other risky policies increase. The companies with the highest personal-jet-use expenses correlated with those with risky salary and accounting characteristics.
GMI looked at 183 S&P 500 companies that offer the perk. They then pulled scores for the top 10% from affiliated organizations The Corporate Library (TCL), which scores according to pay/performance links, and Audit Integrity (AI), which assesses financial disclosure risks, including SEC enforcement action.
GMI discovered that 89% of the jet-happy companies garnered TCL compensation scores indicating "high" or "very high" concern, compared to 52% of the S&P 500 at large. Even worse, 72% of them earned AI scores of "very aggressive" or "aggressive" risks, compared to 52% of the index.
The sketchy compensation plans GMI noted at these companies included high ratios of CEO or other executive pay, sole focus on time-vesting (as opposed to performance-centered) equity awards, high discretionary bonuses, high levels of fixed compensation, and large golden-parachute payments.
Dangerous flights of fancy
Of the 18 companies GMI called out, Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF ) topped the list with its over-the-top example of corporate jet absurdity. In 2010, the retailer's board opted to pay CEO Mike Jeffries a lump sum of $4 million so that Jeffries would limit his use of the corporate jet. After that, he would be required to pay for any use of the jet over $200,000 per year, but hey, there's nothing like a massive payout to alleviate the sting of exercising a little discipline.
Even stripping out the $4 million, Jeffries' $200,000 limit still puts Abercrombie in the top 25% of S&P 500 companies with a corporate jet perk. Meanwhile, Abercrombie's TCL score came in at "very high concern," while its AI Risk Rating was "aggressive."
Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) occasionally enters the spotlight for the egregious pay CEO Aubrey McClendon rakes in. My Foolish colleague Matt Koppenheffer recently asked whether Chesapeake Energy is run for McClendon's benefit, rather than shareholder value. So it's no surprise to find Chesapeake on the list of jet-set offenders as well. Its corporate aircraft payout adds up to $500,000, with its TCL compensation score denoting "very high concern," although its AI risk rating is just "average."
Many investors regard classic blue chip General Electric (NYSE: GE ) as a safe haven, even though its complex structure makes it tough to analyze. However, its corporate-jet policy seems anything but conservative. Its annual aircraft payout comes to $381,234, and its TCL CEO pay score ranks as "very high concern." Even worse, its AI Risk Rating is "very aggressive."
It may be less surprising that aviation giant Boeing (NYSE: BA ) showed up on this high-flying list. With a $303,962 allowance for personal jet use, it garnered "very high concern" on compensation and an "aggressive" rating from AI.
Many investors may not give a flying fig about corporate jet perks, but clearly it deserves serious attention. GMI's report points out exactly why this kind of data is important to shareholders:
[P]ersonal jet use, like all executive perquisites, tells you something critical about the relationship between the board of directors and the CEO... If a board can't say "no" to a CEO's request that the company pay for his or her vacation, or taxes, or tax advice (to list a few examples), that board may not be exercising very strong oversight of CEO performance.
This particular brand of flight risk can ruin shareholder returns. Avoid potential turbulence in your portfolio; make sure the companies you invest in have rational corporate governance policies. That's the smoothest ride to solid returns.
Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.