NEW YORK - It pays to work for John C. Malone.
The billionaire who built a cable and communications empire is 74, and no longer a CEO himself. But he still exerts sway from various boardrooms, and the CEOs at the companies he oversees are routinely among the best-compensated managers on the planet.
Last year, the largesse was particularly notable. Take Discovery Communications, the cable group Mr Malone spun out of his Liberty media group and where he still sits on the board. His choice for chief executive, Mr David M. Zaslav, received a total compensation worth US$156 million (S$206 million), making him the highest- paid chief of a US public company, according to the Equilar 200 Highest-Paid CEO Rankings, conducted for The New York Times.
Four CEOs in Malone-related firms were awarded a total of more than US$350 million last year, occupying three of the top six spots of the study conducted by Equilar, an executive compensation data firm. The leaders of technology companies, financial groups and drug companies all profited handsomely last year.
At public companies with market values of more than US$1 billion and that had filed proxies by April 30, the average package for the top 200 best-paid chief executives was worth US$22.6 million, trumping last year's average of US$20.7 million.
Those are the highest amounts since Equilar began keeping track in 2006. Today's bursting-at- the-seams paydays arrive despite sustained efforts to restrict excessive executive compensation. Since the passage of the Dodd- Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010, which made certain pay practices more onerous, compensation panels have mostly abandoned several controversial pay mechanisms.
Employers are no longer footing the tax bills for departing CEOs who enjoy golden parachutes. Supplemental pension plans, which heaped benefits on executives regardless of how well the company did, are largely a thing of the past. Stock awards are mostly tied to performance.
Underpinning these efforts was a belief that more transparency would lead to some much-needed belt-tightening. "The increased pressure for more disclosure was motivated by public shaming," said Ms Regina Olshan, head of the executive compensation practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. "The idea was that the companies would be ashamed and change their ways."
It hasn't worked. "I don't think those folks are particularly ashamed," Ms Olshan said. "If they are getting paid, they feel they deserve those amounts."
In theory, the momentum to rein in runaway pay continues. Dodd-Frank introduced new say-on-pay measures, allowing shareholders to express their discontent. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is developing rules that would require firms to reveal the ratio of CEO's pay to that of average workers.
And last month, the SEC proposed requiring companies to disclose how performance affects executive pay. If companies have to report CEO pay that is 1,000 times that of the average worker or justify growing pay despite weak results, perhaps shame will kick in. Meanwhile, it seems there is no end to how much money executives can devour. For the first time, all 10 of the top-paid CEOs on Equilar's list received at least US$50 million last year.
NEW YORK TIMES
Top 10 pay packages
TOP 10 who earned more than US$50 million last year:
- DAVID M. ZASLAV
- MICHAEL T. FRIES
- MARIO J. GABELLI
- SATYA NADELLA
- NICHOLAS WOODMAN
- GREGORY B. MAFFEI
Liberty Media & Liberty Interactive
- LAWRENCE J. ELLISON
- STEVEN M. MOLLENKOPF
- DAVID T. HAMAMOTO II
NorthStar Realty Finance
- LESLIE MOONVES
NEW YORK TIMES