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Echoes of Bell in CEO pay

October 03, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

As I beheld the sight of Robert Rizzo and his fellow Bell municipal bosses being frog-marched into court the other day on charges of having overpaid themselves outrageously at the expense of their suffering constituents, the following thought came to me:

Why not Ray Irani?

Maybe it's unfair to pick on the longtime chairman and chief executive of Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, since at $31 million last year, he places only fourth on Forbes' latest list of America's highest-paid executives.

If one is looking for overpaid CEOs, as ranked by their compensation relative to shareholder return, General Electric's Jeffrey Immelt, Verizon's Ivan Seidenberg and many others might deserve to stand ahead of Irani in the queue for the orange jumpsuit. (Those rankings come from Forbes too.)

But to some degree they're all emblematic of the No. 1 scandal of American business — executive pay that bears scant relationship to what these people are worth.

The CEO pay curve has been galloping out of control for so long that it has achieved the status of a cliche. In 1965 the average U.S. CEO earned 24 times the pay of the average worker. Four decades later the ratio was 411 to 1..

Efforts to rein in the trend have invariably failed. Boards were advised to tie the pay of top executives more closely to shareholder returns; the trend line only steepened. The federal government capped the tax-deductibility of executive pay that wasn't based on specific performance standards; companies cooked up performance standards that almost anyone could meet.

Regulators mandated disclosure of these standards; companies shoveled them into their annual proxy statements in such mind-numbing detail that few pay attention. The section of Oxy's proxy where the pay formulas for Irani and his fellow executives are spelled out runs to more than 10,000 words. How many shareholders would wade through so much verbiage? I know of California ballot initiatives, which are always designed to obfuscate, that aren't even half that length.

Evidence shows that CEO pay almost never bears a discernible relationship to the burden of their jobs or their success. Earlier this year, veteran compensation consultant Graef Crystal compiled a database of 271 CEOs for Bloomberg BusinessWeek and judged their pay against a formula based on their companies' size and stock performance to determine how far their income diverged from "fair" pay.

By Crystal's reckoning, Irani's 2009 compensation of $31.4 million was about 2 1/2 times what would be fair. He pointed out that Irani's pay was higher than that of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson ($27.2 million) "and Exxon has many times the sales."

That's putting it mildly: Oxy's revenue was $15.4 billion last year. ExxonMobil's was $310.6 billion. Somebody's pay is out of whack.

This year, Crystal adds, Irani will be due more than $56 million — mostly in cash — thanks to an incentive plan based on the company's return on equity over the three years ended June 30. How much of an incentive was the target ROE? It was lower than Oxy's reported return on equity in previous years.

You almost never see shareholders in any numbers marching with protest placards or filling the seats of a public meeting in fury over executive pay, as Bell's residents have done. And you certainly never see overpaid CEOs being brought to account in court, whether a court of law (where Bell's leaders will be facing fraud charges) or the court of public opinion.

Yet the similarities between what the Bell leaders are accused of and what passes for normality in the corporate world are striking. Setting one's own salary through insider arrangements? Check: The Bell gang voted themselves steep raises; although most corporate boards make a show of placing pay decisions in the hands of a committee of "independent" directors, the members are almost always current or former top executives themselves, members of a tight club.

That's true of three of the four compensation committee members at Occidental Petroleum, four of the six at GE, all six at Verizon and all three at Cephalon Inc., whose CEO, Frank Baldino, Crystal identifies as the most overpaid chief executive in his database. (Baldino's $11.1 million pay last year is 832% of what would be fair, Crystal calculated.)

What about special retirement deals? Check: Rizzo designed a supplemental pension plan for himself and 40 other city officials, providing them with far more than the standard for California municipal employees.

"Supplemental executive retirement plans," or SERPs, which are designed to circumvent federal rules outlawing pension formulas that discriminate between low-paid and high-paid employees, are common in the corporate suite. Of Crystal's sample of 271 CEOs, 189 participated last year in SERPs, which "create a class of senior executives akin to British royalty," he argues.

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