Discovery Communications chief executive, David M. Zaslav, received total compensation worth $156 million last year, making him the highest-paid chief of an American public company.
Just behind Zaslav on the list of the highest-paid chief executives is Michael T. Fries of Liberty Global, an international cable and wireless group, who made $44 million less than Zaslav but still got a package worth $112 million.
Gregory B. Maffei was paid twice in 2014. As chief of Liberty Media, which owns the Atlanta Braves baseball team and a big stake in the satellite radio provider SiriusXM, Mr. Maffei received compensation of $41.3 million. As chief of Liberty Interactive, a related company that owns stakes in home shopping networks, he received $32.4 million, placing him sixth on the list.
Thomas M. Rutledge, who oversees the regional cable operator Charter Communications, was given a $16 million package last year, an increase of 259 percent over 2013.
Some chief executives received generous cash bonuses. Leslie Moonves, boss of CBS, took home a $25 million cash bonus last year. Philippe P. Dauman, chief of Viacom, received a $20 million cash bonus. And Robert A. Iger, head of Walt Disney, enjoyed a cash bonus just shy of $23 million. Some cash bonuses seemed to reward simply doing of one’s job.
Moonves of CBS, over the last four years, has been awarded compensation worth just under $250 million — or a quarter-billion dollars for 48 months work. In the case of Moonves, $12 million of that bonus was tied to the performance of the company, while the remaining $13 million was doled out by the compensation committee partly in special recognition of his “leadership and direction in the creation of premium content.” In other words, the television studio C.E.O. got a big bonus for being a television studio C.E.O.
A C.E.O. need do little more than not destroy the company to look like a visionary leader.
Caterpillar, for example, a company with $52 billion in sales, set a target of just $20 million annual operating profit after capital charge, an obscure measure that calculates earnings after certain costs, for executives to get their payouts. Unsurprisingly, Caterpillar reported an operating profit after capital charge of $1.4 billion, and executives received 167 percent of their target bonuses.
At public companies with market values of more than $1 billion and that had filed proxies by April 30, the average package for the top 200 best paid chief executives was worth $22.6 million, trumping last year’s average of $20.7 million, and the median was $17.6 million. Those are the highest amounts since Equilar began keeping track in 2006. For the first time, all 10 of the top-paid C.E.O.s on Equilar’s list received at least $50 million last year.
Regina Olshan, head of the executive compensation practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom said “The idea was somehow that the companies would be ashamed and change their ways. I don’t think those folks are particularly ashamed.”
However large, these pay packages do not represent the pinnacle of executive compensation. Hedge fund and private equity firm leaders can make not just tens of millions of dollars a year, but more than $1 billion. The top 25 hedge fund managers took home a combined $11.62 billion last year, according to Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine, or nearly a half-billion dollars each. The top earner, Kenneth C. Griffin, the founder and chief executive of Citadel, brought home $1.3 billion. Private equity chieftains did nearly as well. Stephen A. Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group made $690 million last year, up from $450 million in 2013. (Hedge funds and private equity firms compensate executives through a mix of fees, carried interest and dividends, which are not calculated in Equilar’s study.)
“The inside, clubby mentality of being in the right group at the right time is still the way to get paid at big American companies,” Robert Jackson Jr., a professor of corporate governance at Columbia Law School said. “Even after say-on-pay, even after disclosure rules, even after the financial crisis....”