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YOUR MONEY: CALIFORNIA EXECUTIVE PAY REPORT

Fair is fair -- but exec pensions aren't

May 25, 2008|DAVID LAZARUS | CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

Does your job guarantee you a pension for your retirement? Mine doesn't, and if you're like most private-sector workers, your pension plan is either crumbling around you or has been replaced with a 401(k) program, which may or may not receive a helping hand from your employer.

Yet many if not most chief executives continue to enjoy lavish pension plans -- on top of their multimillion-dollar pay packages and sundry other perks.

How can that be fair?

The short answer, of course, is that it isn't. But fairness was never the point. This is about giving CEOs what they want, regardless of what's given to other company employees.

"It's what the market is for these jobs," said Charles Tharp, executive vice president of policy for the Center on Executive Compensation, a think tank that was introduced this month to provide "a cohesive and reasoned corporate point of view" on executive pay.

The center's funding comes from the HR Policy Assn., an organization of human resource executives at more than 250 companies, as well as individual corporations such as McDonald's Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., IBM Corp. and General Mills Inc.

"If you're going to hire someone at that level, and that person has a pension, you have to match that pension," Tharp said. "You've got to pay what the market is."

By that reasoning, United Airlines was justified in giving Glenn Tilton a $4.5-million pension trust when he took over the ailing carrier in 2002. The money, United said at the time, was intended to compensate Tilton for the pension he was abandoning when he departed his former employer, then ChevronTexaco Corp.

Losing his pension was clearly an important point for Tilton. Otherwise, the $4.5-million trust wouldn't have been included in his contract, which also featured a starting salary of $950,000, a $3-million signing bonus and 100,000 shares in United's parent company, UAL Corp.

Just three months after he was hired, Tilton led United into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

In 2005, he terminated United's four employee pension plans, covering about 120,000 active and retired workers. It was the largest pension default in U.S. history, dumping about $5 billion in obligations on the government-run Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

In 2006, when United emerged from bankruptcy, Tilton's total compensation was valued at almost $24 million.

Last year, his pay package was a considerably more modest $1.4 million.

Megan McCarthy, a United spokeswoman, said the company's employees now have either 401(k) plans or union-run pensions.

Tilton, she said, is not receiving a pension. "He has a certain amount that was awarded when he came to United."

Damon Silvers, associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO labor union, which includes many United employees, called this a laughable distinction.

"If Tilton is getting a fixed benefit from a trust, that's a pension," he said. "Call it what you want. It's a pension.

"It's not a bad thing necessarily that a CEO has a pension," Silvers added. "But why should he be the only one?"

The answer is that CEO pay all too often is based not on performance but on a series of fuzzily defined criteria that can best be summed up like this: If that guy gets it, so do I.

In other words, the fat compensation packages -- including pension deals -- enjoyed by other CEOs help shape new compensation packages, which in turn influence subsequent compensation packages.

It's a self-perpetuating gravy train that can only lead only to ever-greater excess.

The nonprofit group United for a Fair Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies estimate that the CEOs of the largest U.S. companies pulled down an average $10.8 million each in total compensation in 2006, or 346 times what the average worker was paid.

In 1980, the average CEO was making just 42 times what rank-and-file workers were paid.

Tharp at the Center on Executive Compensation argued that this is only natural.

"Executives do make multiples of what the average employee makes," he said. "If you look at the level of responsibility, it makes sense."

Tharp also said that while many companies are trying to cut costs, there are only so many qualified CEOs to go around, and they often demand top dollar for their services.

I'm not against paying someone for a job well done. Apple Inc.'s Steve Jobs made just $1 in salary last year but reaped an additional $14.6 million on paper by exercising stock options.

His compensation was thus tied to his company's performance, and Apple, which earned record profit of $3.5 billion in fiscal 2007, performed very well.

Mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp. lost $704 million in 2007 and an additional $893 million in the first quarter of this year, and is now being acquired by Bank of America Corp. Yet CEO Angelo Mozilo earned about $132 million last year in salary and stock sales.

I think most people would agree he was just a tad overpaid.

When it comes to pensions, the rule should be simple: The CEO gets what workers get.

If workers are forced to forgo a pension because it's too expensive for the company, then the CEO also goes without.

It's called leading by example. More CEOs ought to give it a try.

--

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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