NEW YORK – In the boardroom, it's as if the Great Recession never happened. CEOs at the nation's largest companies were paid better last year than they were in 2007, when the economy was booming, the stock market set a record high and unemployment was roughly half what it is today.
The typical pay package for the head of a company in the Standard & Poor's 500 was $9 million in 2010, according to an analysis by The Associated Press using data provided by Equilar, an executive compensation research firm. That was 24 percent higher than a year earlier, reversing two years of declines.
Executives were showered with more pay of all types — salaries, bonuses, stock, options and perks. The biggest gains came in cash bonuses: Two-thirds of executives got a bigger one than they had in 2009, some more than three times as big.
CEOs were rewarded because corporate profits soared in 2010 as the economy gradually got stronger and companies continued to cut costs. Profit for the companies in the AP analysis rose 41 percent last year.
The stock market also continued its climb. Stocks rose 13 percent in 2010 and have now almost doubled since March 2009. The market's two-year run has fattened executive bonuses because some CEOs are rewarded for how the company's stock does.
Separately, the bull market has left CEOs enormous paper gains on stock and options they were granted as part of pay packages in 2009 and 2010. They are already worth $6.3 billion, 68 percent more than the companies thought they would be worth over the lifetime of the grants.
The AP used the Equilar data to analyze CEO pay packages at 334 companies in the S&P 500 that had filed statements with federal regulators through April 29. Pay was analyzed at companies that had the same CEO in both 2009 and 2010. The AP's analysis is the most comprehensive of 2010 compensation.
Among the other findings in the AP analysis:
— The highest-paid CEO in 2010 was Philippe Dauman of Viacom, the entertainment company that owns MTV, Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures. He received a pay package valued at $84.5 million, two and a half times what he made the year before. He signed a contract in April 2010 that included stock and options valued by the company at $54.2 million when they were granted.
— Six of the 10 best-paid CEOs come from media or entertainment, industries helped by a recovery in advertising and innovations in digital distribution. Besides Dauman, they are Leslie Moonves of CBS, $56.9 million; David Zaslav of Discovery Communications, $42.6 million; Brian Roberts of Comcast, $31.1 million; Robert Iger of Walt Disney, $28 million; and Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner, $26.1 million.
— The 10 highest-paid CEOs made $440 million in 2010, a third more than the top 10 made in 2009. Four CEOs — Dauman, Moonves, Roberts and Ray Irani of Occidental Petroleum — were on the Top 10 list both years.
To calculate CEO pay, the AP adds an executive's salary, bonuses, perks, any interest on deferred pay that's above market interest rates, and the value a company places on stock and stock options awarded during the year.
The median pay value of $9 million, calculated by Equilar, is the midpoint of the companies used in the AP analysis; half of the CEOs made more and half made less. In 2007, the median pay was $8.4 million. In 2008 it was $7.6 million, and in 2009 it was $7.2 million. The $9 million median for 2010 is the highest since the AP began the analysis in 2006.
The economy gradually improved in 2010, the first full year of recovery after the Great Recession. The private sector added 1.2 million jobs after losing 5 million in 2009. The unemployment rate fell from 9.9 percent to 9.4 percent.
For companies that the AP analyzed, revenue grew about 12 percent, according to data provider CapitalIQ. That helped lift earnings, as did companies' ability to hold down costs. Companies could limit raises for rank-and-file workers because of the weak labor market.
The bigger profits helped push up the typical cash bonus given to a CEO by 39 percent in 2010, to $2 million, according to Equilar. Some companies, including Ford and JPMorgan Chase, didn't grant bonuses in 2009 but paid big sums last year as business made a strong comeback from the recession.
Companies analyzed by AP granted their CEOs about $1.3 billion in stock in 2010, up about $300 million from the year before. They awarded stock options worth $702 million, or about $27 million more than the year before.
Those figures are based on formulas the companies use to estimate what the stock and options will eventually be worth when a CEO receives the stock or cashes in the options.
Meanwhile, pay for workers grew 3 percent in 2010, to an average of about $40,500. The percentage increase was twice the rate of inflation, but the average wage was less than one-half of one percent of what the typical CEO in the AP analysis made.
Some critics of today's executive pay say boards should consider how much a CEO has accumulated over the years when they set the next year's pay.
"Boards need to recognize that many CEOs already have enough in terms of motivation and lifetime wealth," says Jesse Brill, chair of the website CompensationStandards.com and an expert on CEO pay. "It is very frustrating to see boards keep giving them more."
As evidence, Brill points to stock and options given to CEOs the past two years. Boards at most companies grant those awards early in the year. In 2009, most were granted just as the stock market neared its lowest point in 12 years; today they are worth $2.2 billion more than the companies thought they would be over the lifetime of the grants.
Then in 2010, CEOs in the AP analysis received another batch of stock and options. Those have already gained about $400 million in value on paper, based on current market prices.
"The pendulum has swung back enough for many executives," says Doug Friske, an executive-compensation consultant at the firm Towers Watson. "Now boards are going to have to think about what they are going to do from here."
Their decisions will be watched closely by shareholders. Government rules passed last year require almost every public company to give investors a vote at least once every three years on what it pays its executives. The votes aren't binding, but they can draw unwanted attention to a CEO's pay.
So far this year, shareholders at only 12 companies have voted against pay plans. The low number reflects the fact that many institutional investors, such as mutual funds, tend to side with management on shareholder proposals.
One company whose shareholders voted against the pay plan was Stanley Black & Decker. In 2010, it gave CEO John Lundgren compensation valued at $32.6 million, which made him the sixth-highest-paid on the AP's list. His pay included a one-time grant of 325,000 shares of stock valued at $18.7 million.
Institutional Shareholder Services, which advises large investors on how to vote on corporate matters, had criticized Stanley Black & Decker for paying its executives better than competitors pay theirs and for its one-time stock awards.
Companies that get negative votes on their pay plans will have to disclose, in the statements they file with regulators the next year, how the vote affected their decisions on pay. So in 2012, Stanley Black & Decker will have to say whether it changed Lundgren's pay because of the negative vote.
"They don't have to make any changes to their pay plans, but they have to disclose what they did to respond to the negative vote, which could be nothing," says Mark Borges, a principal at the compensation consulting firm Compensia.
Some companies are doing what they can to prevent an embarrassing "no" vote. Last month, General Electric revised the terms on 2 million stock options granted to CEO Jeff Immelt in 2010. The changes came after GE was criticized by ISS.
Under the original terms of the grant, Immelt, 55, simply had to stay at GE until 2013 to get half the stock options and until 2015 to get the other half.
Now, he can't exercise any of the options until 2015, and they depend on performance targets. For Immelt to get half the options, GE has to improve its cash flow, and for him to get the other half, the stock has to outperform the market.
"Shareholders don't have any tools at the moment to force companies to make changes in pay, but there are plenty of companies making changes because they don't want the attention of a negative vote," Borges says.
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