It must be nice for Canada's top CEOs that their pay packets are very nearly as full as they were at their bulging peak before the recession. Their companies' key financial measures don't look nearly so thoroughly restocked.
As my Globe and Mail colleague Janet McFarland reported Monday, the chief executive officers of Canada's 100 biggest corporations saw their combined pay jump 11 per cent in 2013 over 2012. The median compensation for these executives was $5.6-million, just a tad shy of its pre-recession high of $5.8-million in 2007.
But for the biggest companies in the country, the rebound in their financial fortunes is considerably lagging this CEO-pay recovery.
Profits for the S&P/TSX 60 index (the 60 biggest publicly traded corporations in the country, not quite as big a group as the 100 in the CEO-pay study, but still a fair representation) slipped 4 per cent last year, according to Bloomberg data. They were down 5 per cent from 2007 – and, indeed, have only managed to exceed 2007 levels once since the recession (in 2011). The average price for the S&P/TSX 60 stock index was 7 per cent lower in 2013 than it was in 2007; the year-end level was 3 per cent lower.
If CEOs aren't being paid for reviving profits and stock prices, what are they being paid for? Perhaps, given the period of spending restraint and debt deleveraging we have come through in the post-recession era, the executive compensation reflects a reward for cleaning up the corporate balance sheet. But total debt for S&P/TSX 60 companies is up 40 per cent since 2007, and the ratio of assets to liabilities is essentially unchanged from pre-recession levels.
The apparent disconnect between CEO compensation and financial and stock performance is most evident among the country's biggest resource producers. This pay-for-performance analysis tool, developed Global Governance Advisors, shows that many of the CEOs who received the biggest compensation for the lowest total shareholder returns over the past four years (the top-left quadrant) are in the gold-mining sector. Wondering what Barrick Gold Corp.'s shareholders were so upset about? This is it.
Perhaps the reason more shareholders at more companies haven't been quite so vocal can be explained by the one area where Canada's top executives have delivered: dividends.
Investors have made dividends a priority in the low-return post-recession era, and Canada's biggest companies have responded: Dividend payments in the S&P/TSX 60 have surged 38 per cent since 2007, and have risen every year since 2009, even when profits didn't. Indeed, on a total-return basis (combining share price appreciation and dividends), S&P/TSX 60 stocks were up 15 per cent from the end of 2007 to the end of 2013. Perhaps this may have become a more important performance criterion for the market than many other measures; as long as the payments keep flowing to shareholders, the big CEO pay packages become a little easier to swallow.