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It's hard to believe after so many years of business as usual, but something akin to accountability in the top brass of corporate America might be in the offing. Some high-profile chief executive officers are experiencing slimmer paychecks due to performance issues.
It's a good time to ponder this, because once spring has sprung, most companies will hold their annual meetings -- and tally up shareholders' say-on-pay votes.
According to The Wall Street Journal, for the second year running, Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) CEO James Gorman is expected to get hit with a pay cut, given the firm's slow turnaround. Gorman's rumored pay figure will be a total $6 million in 2012, down from $10.5 million in 2011
and $14 million in 2010.
This isn't the first time a Wall Street bigwig has taken a financial hit recently. JPMorgan Chase's (NYSE: JPM ) Jamie Dimon's 2012 pay was slashed in half to $11.5 million after the infamous London Whale $6 billion trading loss apparently blindsided the chief executive.
Pay cuts of some kind, whether voluntarily undertaken or implemented by boards of directors, are also slashing through the executive compensation at other companies in other industries, both here and abroad.
Chesapeake Energy's (NYSE: CHK ) controversial CEO Aubrey McClendon recently voluntarily gave up his bonus, although many Chesapeake shareholders could find that gesture "too little, too late" given years of hefty pay and shady dealings.
Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis' (NYSE: NVS ) CEO received a 16% pay cut last year, a proactive move given an upcoming vote in Switzerland. The Swiss will vote on a rule that would make companies implement any restrictions shareholders set on executive compensation. This referendum could also ban practices like golden handshakes and golden parachutes for executive hires.
Will CEOs ever really pay?
Such pay cuts are a step in the right direction; the thought of losing something financially surely warns chief executives that performance does matter, and directors who are meting them out have surely caught on that shareholders have wised up to CEO pay's reality disconnect in recent years.
For many years, regardless of corporate performance or macroeconomic conditions, it seemed as if chief executives were a protected class of employees whose pay always went up.
Of course, an even better incentive for responsibility and accountability would be clawbacks, through which companies can demand money back from chief executives from missteps over the years.
In October, corporate governance expert Paul Hodgson penned an op-ed for Bloomberg. He pointed out that despite the clear problems banks caused to shareholders and taxpayers before and during the financial crisis, no clawbacks of the responsible executives' pay ever materialized. Plenty of more recent scandals at financial companies, including Barclays' LIBOR manipulation, should be fair game for taking back money earned in nefarious ways, too.
Although some related executives (rightly) lost their jobs, that's nothing compared to what many stashed in their bank accounts while the getting was good for ill-gotten gains.
However, in another one of those rare steps in the right direction, another Swiss firm, Credit Suisse (NYSE: CS ) , has announced that part of its 2012 cash bonuses for top-ranking executives are subject to three-year clawback rules.
Could 2013 finally bring a reality check in CEO pay?
Given some of the scandals in corporate governance and corporate behavior in 2012, it's tempting to think lessons are hard learned in corporate America. However, 2013 may mark a turning point, since there were some significant shareholder revolts last year. (Think Citigroup.)
Meanwhile, some companies are pondering the issue of CEO pay given the upcoming proxy season and the certainty that activist investors will continue to rail about pay versus performance. In November, compensation governance consultant Pearl Meyer & Partners released survey results showing significant numbers of the 167 respondents aiming for "moderation" in their company's compensation programs, and even cutting or freezing CEO pay.
Hopefully chief executive officers will experience a much-needed reality check when it comes to aligning their pay to performance -- and remember that moderation is a virtue. Even though the cuts are fairly cosmetic, they still send a message that all is not well, and that serious accountability is required for that leadership role (that's why CEOs make the big bucks in the first place, although so many have shirked the whole "accountability" element in recent years).
So let the pay cuts continue, even if clawbacks would be better in many cases.
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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.