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Typical CEO made $9.6 million last year

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In the past year, he says, "Shareholders found their voice."

The typical CEO got stock awards worth $3.6 million in 2011, up 11 percent from the year before. Cash bonuses fell about 7 percent, to $2 million.

The value of stock options, as determined by the company, climbed 6 percent to a median $1.7 million. Options usually give the CEO the right to buy shares in the future at the price they're trading at when the options are granted, so they're worth something only if the shares go up.

Profit at companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index rose 16 percent last year, remarkable in an economy that grew more slowly than expected.

CEOs managed to sell more, and squeeze more profit from each sale, despite problems ranging from a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating to an economic slowdown in China and Europe's never-ending debt crisis.

Still, there wasn't much immediate benefit for the shareholders. The S&P 500 ended the year unchanged from where it started. Including dividends, the index returned a slender 2 percent.

Shareholder activists, while glad that companies are moving a bigger portion of CEO pay into stock awards, caution that the rearranging isn't a cure-all.

For one thing, companies don't have to tie stock awards to performance. Instead, they can make the awards automatically payable on a certain date – meaning all the CEO has to do is stick around.

Other companies do tie stock awards to performance but set easy goals. Sometimes, "they set the bar so low, it would be difficult for an executive not to trip over it," says Patrick McGurn, special counsel at Institutional Shareholder Services, which advises pension funds and other big investors on how to vote.

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