CEO Compensation Controversy

By Kranacher, Mary-Jo | The CPA Journal, May 2013 | Go to article overview

CEO Compensation Controversy


Kranacher, Mary-Jo, The CPA Journal


A Corporate Governance Failure

The growing divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" has provoked public discussions about the need for tax reform, the stubbornly high unemployment rate, and the effects of wage stagnation. But one position for which the compensation has not stagnated is that of the CEO.

CEOs have faced substantial criticism for the disproportionately large slice of the compensation pie that they receive, as compared to the typical worker; the CEO of a Standard & Poor's (S&P) 500 company in 2012 made approximately 354 times the wage of an average U.S. worker, according to the AFL-CIO ("CEO-to-Worker Pay Gap in the United States," http://www.aflcio.org/Corporate-Watch/CEO-Pay-andYou/CEO-to-Worker-Pay-Gap-in-theUnited-States). Is the work of a CEO really worth that much more money?

Some might argue that companies need to pay CEOs well to recruit and retain top talent, or that CEOs deserve what they're paid because of their performance. But the numbers tell a different story. The CEOs who presided over some of the largest corporate failures in recent history were extremely well paid, such as Richard Fuld (Lehman Brothers), Bernie Ebbers (Worldcom), Kerry Killinger (Washington Mutual), Kenneth Lay (Enron), and Stanley O'Neal (Merrill Lynch). So what accounts for such irrational business decisions? Perhaps it's the undue influence that some CEOs exert over their boards-the same boards that decide the CEO's employment terms and compensation package. Isn't this a conflict of interest?

A Global Perspective

The upward surge in CEO pay is not as prevalent outside the United States, and the compensation for CEOs of comparable-size companies in other countries generally doesn't compete with that of U.S. CEOs. Yet, this issue has received more attention globally than domestically. For example, the Swiss supported a binding shareholder vote on pay; the French are moving to limit or ban enhanced retirement packages, known as "golden parachutes"; and German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently indicated her support for tighter regulations on executive pay. The best we could muster in the United States was passing a "say-on-pay" rule that provides for a nonbinding shareholder vote on executive compensation.

Walk-Away Packages

Executive compensation packages aren't limited to the cash and perks CEOs receive while they're in the C-suite. GMI Ratings, a global research firm, released a report in January 2012, "Twenty-One U.S. CEOs with Golden Parachutes of More Than $100 Million" (http://origin. …

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