It makes sense to assume the highest-paid CEOs in America also are the best-performing CEOs.
But the numbers tell a different story.
Last year, corporate governance research firm MCSI did a study of 800 CEOs at 429 large and mid-size U.S. companies over a 10-year span, from 2006 through 2015.
This study found the opposite is true – the best-paid CEOs on average deliver the worst results for shareholders.
Measured by total shareholder returns, the highest-paid CEOs in the MCSI study (those with total compensation above the median) underperformed the lowest-paid CEOs (those with total compensation below the median) by a stunning 39%.
Note that CEOs don't just get compensated in salary and benefits like the rest of us. They also get huge bonuses, stock options, stock awards, perks, and other incentives.
While investors need to keep most of their focus on the company itself, it's apparent that high CEO pay can be a red flag.
Another useful tool is the ratio between the CEO's compensation and that of the company's median worker. And starting next year, investors will be getting a lot more information on that…
A New Window into Excessive CEO pay
The disclosure of the ratio between CEO pay and worker pay is required under 2010's Dodd-Frank Act, but was delayed for years as companies complained about the difficulties of compliance.
But in 2015, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission voted to put the rule into effect as of the first quarter of 2018 – less than a year away.
What we do know is that the gap between CEO pay and that of the average worker has grown to an embarrassing size – the AFL-CIO reported that the average American CEO made 335 times more money in 2015 than average production and non-supervisory workers did.
By comparison, U.S CEO compensation was just 30 times that of the average worker in 1978.
In terms of dollars, the average CEO of a Standard & Poor's 500 company made $12.4 million in 2015, while the average worker made $36,875.
Even assuming a 60-hour work week, that translates to the average CEO making $3,975 an hour. In just a little over nine hours, the average CEO earns more than the average worker does over an entire year.
But those averages greatly understate the discrepancies in the pay ratios of the highest-paid CEOs (hence the need for the Dodd-Frank disclosure rule).
The highest-paid CEO in 2015 (the latest year for which we have data) was Expedia Inc.'s (Nasdaq: EXPE) Dara Khosrowshahi. He made $94.6 million. That's $1,819,231 per week, or $30,320 an hour (for a 60-hour week).
Khosrowshahi at least delivered 47% in total shareholder returns in 2015.
But no one else in the 25 highest-paid CEOs of that year came close to that performance.
Here's a chart showing how much each of the highest-paid CEOs made in 2015, how well the company's stock fared, and the total shareholder return.
Few of the Highest-Paid CEOs Earn Their Keep
Expedia Inc. (Nasdaq: EXPE)
CBS Corp. (NYSE: CBS)
|3.||Philippe P. Dauman|
Viacom Inc. (Nasdaq: VIAB)
|4.||Mark V. Hurd|
Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL)
|5.||Safra A. Catz|
Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL)
|6.||Frank J. Bisignano|
First Data Corp. (NYSE: FDC)
|7.||Leonard S. Schleifer|
Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. (Nasdaq: REGN)
|8.||Robert A. Iger|
Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS)
General Growth Properties Inc. (NYSE: GGP)
|10.||Howard M. Lorber|
Vector Group Ltd. (NTSE: VGR)
|11.||Marissa A. Mayer|
Yahoo! Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO)
IMS Health Holdings Inc. (NYSE: IMS)
salesforce.com Inc. (NYSE: CRM)
|14.||David M. Cote|
Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE: HON)
|15.||David M. Zaslav|
Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA)
|16.||Jeffrey L. Bewkes|
Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX)
|17.||Gregory C. Case|
Aon Plc. (NYSE: AON)
|18.||James E. Meyer|
Sirius XM Holdings Inc. (Nasdaq: SIRI)
|19.||Mary T. Barra|
General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM)
|20.||Jeffrey M. Leiden|
Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. (Nasdaq: VRTX)
|21.||Brian L. Roberts|
Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA)
|22.||Gregory B. Maffei|
Liberty Media (Nasdaq: LMCA) & Liberty Interactive (Nasdaq: QVCA)
|23.||Leslie H. Wexner|
L Brands Inc. (NYSE: LB)
|24.||Jeffrey R. Immelt|
General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE)
|25.||Laurence D. Fink|
BlackRock Inc. (NYSE: BLK)
*Total Shareholder Return
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About the Author
David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.
Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.