May 20, 2021 - Economy & Business

The new CEO pay rebellion

Plaque with dollar signs
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A growing number of companies are facing investor backlash against fat C-suite pay packages.

Why it matters: Shareholders are eyeing pay more closely after a year that crushed the economy, decimated some businesses (and displaced their workers) — but still left some top executives with hefty payouts.

Catch up quick: What's typically a procedural signoff on how much leaders will be paid is turning into a rebellion of sorts.

  • At least eight have seen compensation slapped down by a majority of shareholders at annual meetings, twice as many as this time last year.
  • Proxy advisor ISS — which influences how big shareholders vote — supported just 77% of executive pay proposals (versus the 89% they supported in 2020).

What they're saying: This year's "unusually low support levels" show investors punishing "companies that made significant changes to executive compensation without descriptive disclosure and/or a compelling rationale," Alliance Advisors' James Miller wrote in a note out today.

  • About 53% of shareholders voted against Walgreens' payout plan earlier this year. The pharmacy chain cut out part of 2020 results from a bonus calculation.
  • That calculation shift meant a few executives were eligible for equity awards "worth $7.68 million that otherwise would have been forfeited" without that change, Bloomberg reports.
  • AT&T, Starbucks and General Electric also saw executive pay proposals shot down by a majority of investors for the first time in years.

But, but, but: Votes on pay are nonbinding, so companies ultimately do what they want. However, it sends a strong signal to top ranks that's rarely ignored for long.

What to watch: For companies that have received shareholder approval for pay packages, they're increasingly close calls. Historically, investors support them by a wide margin.

  • 57% of Wells Fargo investors approved its CEO pay plan, "among the lowest support for a major U.S. bank" on record, per Reuters.
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