However You Slice It, CEO Pay Is Ripping You Off

The state of American chief executive compensation has gotten 257 times more insulting.

Jun 2, 2014 at 10:04AM

Read it and weep. Chief executive officers in the U.S. now make 257 times the pay of average Americans -- a new record. The late Peter Drucker, the man dubbed the father of modern management theory, said that employee morale starts to decay and resentment starts to rise when CEO pay exceeds a 20-to-1 ratio. Despite the fact that Drucker is well-respected, that particular piece of advice is rarely heeded.

Census Bureau data shows that since the 1970s and early 1980s, median American employees' pay has basically stagnated. Still, shareholders haven't gone wild with ire this year during say-on-pay votes. In fact, votes against CEO compensation at public companies have been tame this year. However, heady stock market returns and short-term profits have dominated the news over the past few years, and such market states don't quite galvanize shareholder rebellions.

Still, one big story this year illustrates the possibility of a better future: Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) suffered a landslide negative say-on-pay vote despite outstanding financial and stock performance.

Big bonanzas
Equilar and the Associated Press released 2013 data this week, looking at the total pay packages for 337 CEOs at the S&P 500 companies that released the proxy filings between Jan. 1 and April 30. Median CEO pay was $10.5 million, an 8.8% increase. 

In order to provide a clear year-by-year picture, the data screens out new CEOs' pay, as signing bonuses often guarantee that new execs can make bank before they even demonstrate any performance. The CEOs in question had been at their posts for at least two years. 

One interesting trend: Media CEOs made out like bandits. In just two examples, CBS Corp.'s (NYSE:CBS) Leslie Moonves and Viacom's (NASDAQ:VIAB) Philippe Dauman are among the lists top earners, and six of the top 10 are in the media industry.

Speaking of the outlandish lump sums CEOs sometimes receive, Nabors Industries (NYSE:NBR) is a repeat offender in egregious CEO pay. Chief executive Anthony Petrello was paid $60 million in exchange for giving up future bonuses. This boosted his pay by 246% to $68 million, putting him at the top of the AP and Equilar's list for 2013. 

This is no surprise, given Nabors' track record. As of 2013, Nabors' CEO pay had been voted down by shareholders for three years running, and the company caused a shareholder uproar when it offered former CEO and current chairman Eugene Isenberg a $100 million golden parachute, even though he would stay on in the diminished role of chairman of the board. Isenberg did forfeit the outrageous payment, but this goes to show that eventually shareholders will lose their tempers. 

Scraps thrown to the rest of us
MarketWatch gave us some food for thought regarding CEOs' swelling salaries. The Economic Policy Institute said last year that between 1979 and 2012, average Americans' salaries grew just 5%, even though productivity skyrocketed by 74.5%.

Granted, productivity was likely at least partially increased by major innovations and American ingenuity, as well as the stewardship of great CEOs and company founders. For example, the Internet is only one of the major forces that have changed the course of our economy and enabled companies to conduct business with unprecedented efficiency.

Still, average human employees have been more than insignificant cogs in the wheels of progress.

Even if you were fortunate enough to be considered one of the highest performers in your career last year, you probably received something along the lines of a "whopping" 4.3% boost in your compensation. By now you must be ready go out and buy that Tesla, am I right?

What shareholders should not want
Even the most market-oriented investors and businesspeople should wonder how this makes any sense. Chipotle's situation shows that there is a point when a whole lot of regular investors and powerful institutional shareholders get fed up. The fact that only a quarter of Chipotle investors voted for the co-CEOs' pay is damning.

Many investors have done well with their stocks in the last several years. And that's by no means a bad thing.

However, the truth is that this owes partly to the prevailing market mania, which is floating all boats. This can lull us into a sense of complacency. Almost all CEOs, bless their hearts, look like pretty brilliant managers at the moment.

Even among the greatest corporate leaders, does any CEO's performance warrant the general 257-to-1 pay ratio? Shareholders should think about the current state of affairs and vote against outrageous pay policies if they don't want:

  • Employees who not only don't feel like innovating, but hate their jobs and talk smack about their employers on Glassdoor, on social media, and to anybody who will listen.
  • Public protests and boycotts -- or even unconscious defection to other choices.
  • Serious deteriorations in the quality of products and customer service.

The Chipotle vote may serve as a reminder that things can change going forward. Shareholders may well begin crying "enough is enough." The best-managed companies and smartest shareholders will realize that it's for the best when it comes to long-term performance.

Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

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Alyce Lomax owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. 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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