IT Companies Among Those Who Skirt Taxes on CEO Pay, Watchdog Says

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    I wrote a post a while back in which I raised the question of whether any CIO is worth the livelihoods of 250 families. It was a reference to the compensation paid to Randy Mott, who at the time was the CIO at Hewlett-Packard—the money that went to Mott was the equivalent of what could have gone to 250 employees, each making $100,000.

    I was reminded of that post last week, when I came across a study by Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer rights watchdog. According to the study, the 2012 compensation of the 20 highest-paid CEOs of publicly traded companies in the United States totaled just under $1 billion. That means that their average income was the equivalent of what could have been $100,000 for 500 breadwinners, which to me raised the question of whether any CEO is worth the livelihoods of 500 families. And not to beat a dead horse, but it just so happens that the highest-paid CEO on the list is Oracle’s Larry Ellison, with total compensation in 2012 of just over $96 million. That raises the question of whether any CEO is worth the livelihoods of nearly 1,000 families.

    Another dimension to all of this is the one that Public Citizen focused on with its study. Of that $1 billion in total CEO compensation, nearly three-fourths of it—over $738 million—was paid in the form of performance-based compensation, which, because of a tax loophole, makes that compensation tax-deductible for the companies. So, according to Public Citizen, we taxpayers are subsidizing these CEOs’ exorbitant compensation packages.

    Four CEOs of IT companies land on that top 20 list. Larry Ellison, as I mentioned, is in the number-one spot. His base salary is one dollar. More than $94.6 million of his $96.1 million compensation was designated as performance-based, making it tax-deductible. Now, one of the controversial things about all of this involves questions surrounding the performance metrics that are used by these companies to determine the CEOs’ eligibility for this tax-deductible income. In the case of Oracle, according to Public Citizen:

    Oracle Corp. established 23 different performance criteria that can be considered when granting equity awards to executives. However, the compensation committee can rely on just one of the 23 when determining if an executive will receive a grant, thereby giving the committee the ability to cherry-pick a positive outcome. At Oracle’s 2013 annual shareholder meeting, Oracle’s board of directors opposed a shareholder resolution both to include quantifiable performance metrics and to have them approved by shareholders.

    What about those other three CEOs of IT companies that were on the list? In the number 12 spot is Level 3 Communications CEO James Crowe, whose total 2012 compensation was $40.7 million, $37 million of which was tax deductible. At number 15 was Paul Ricci, CEO of speech recognition software provider Nuance Communications. His total compensation was $37 million, roughly half of which was tax deductible. And then, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer fell in at number 16. Interestingly, in her case, of the $36.6 million she was paid on 2012, a grand total of exactly zero was tax deductible. It would appear that Yahoo decided it’s simply unfair to burden taxpayers with subsidizing her compensation. I now think more highly of Yahoo than I did before I read this study.

    According to Public Citizen, an effort is under way in Congress to do something about this tax loophole. The Stop Subsidizing Multi-Million Dollar Corporate Bonuses Act has been introduced by U.S. Senators Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). Among other things, the bill would eliminate the performance-based compensation exemption.

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