CEO Pay Grows Even As Companies Slump

Even as Sprint stock fell more than 60 percent last year, Sprint CEO Bill Esrey made $65 million.

Necessary, says Mr. Esrey.

"We're not going to get the best and the brightest and we're not going to keep them unless we pay competitive salaries," he says.

Outrageous, say some who attended this week's shareholders' meeting.

"This is a company where executive compensation is out of control," said Cornish Hitchcock, a consumer advocate.

Highest Paid in World

And Sprint is not unusual.

American CEOs, already the highest paid in the world, made an average of $13.1 million last year, up 6 1/2 percent from 1999.

The 20 highest-paid took home an average of $117 million, with former Citigroup CEO John Reed topping the list at $293 million.

All this, even as the stock market tumbled and shareholders suffered.

"People were losing their college funds, their pensions and their savings," says Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. "And in the midst of this, CEO pay explodes."

Heads I Win, Tails I Win

Most of the compensation is in the form of stock options, which allow executives to buy company shares at a set price, often lower than the market price.

Companies say options tie an executive's pay to the company's performance, so the CEO doesn't do well, unless shareholders do too. But, in practice, it often doesn't work that way.

Several companies, including Sprint, granted senior executives more options to help make up for depressed share prices.

"Now that the stock market is weakening, the CEOs are finding a way to say, "Heads I win, tails, I think I'd like to win then, too,'" says Nell Minnow, a shareholder activist.

With the stock market's future uncertain, many CEOs are now demanding more cash to offset the risk of options. And with the market for CEOs as tight as ever, recruiters say they're likely to get what they want.