Canada’s 100 highest-paid CEOs will have earned an average worker’s salary by lunch on Monday, the first work day of the year, a survey of publicly-traded companies found.
Canada’s best paid chief executive officers took home an average of $8.96 million in 2014, according to the annual report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
That’s 184 times the pay of the average working Canadian, who earned $48,636 in 2014.
The 98 men and two women earned Canada’s average salary by 12:18 p.m. on the first work day of the new year for many people. They earned the average minimum-wage worker’s pay by just after 2 p.m. on New Year’s Day, a paid holiday.
“What really struck me more than anything else — given the fact that the Canadian economy was already quite weak and commodity prices were already deteriorating in 2014 — was the resilience of CEO compensation,” said research associate Hugh Mackenzie, who studied proxy circulars of the 249 publicly-listed Canadian corporations on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Many CEOs on the list made much more than the $9 million average, thanks to boosts from bonuses, stock options, pensions and the like, which continue to comprise the lion’s share of executive pay.
“My general suspicion is that all these things are ways of paying people more without people being able to figure out exactly how much,” Mackenzie said.
This year’s list was topped by Blackberry’s John Chen whose total compensation was a whopping $89.7 million, according to Mackenzie’s calculations.
Chen’s base salary was among the lowest of the 100 CEOs at $341,452. However, his shares in the company were worth some $88 million, Mackenzie calculated — accounting for the vast majority of his total compensation.
Chen’s generous share-based compensation has been controversial since it was awarded as part of an incentive package when he took over heading up the company in 2013.
The first runner-up, Donald Walker, CEO of Magna International Inc., also earned a relatively low base salary of $358,924, but made an additional $11.6 million in bonuses, which, along with other rewards, brought his total compensation to $23.4 million.
That wasn’t the biggest bonus awarded, however: that honour goes to the third highest-paid CEO Gerald Schwartz of Onex Corp., who scored himself a $19.7-million bonus.
The average CEO pay in 2014 was actually down two per cent from 2013, when CEO’s average pay was $9.2 million, the highest since CCPA began tracking in 2008, the report found. Volatile stock markets — caused by investor fears over Chinese growth, falling commodity prices and global instability — were responsible for some of the decline in valuation this year.
But the years-long trend has been toward swelling payment packages. Compensation was up 22 per cent in 2014 since the survey first started in 2008, while salary for the average Canadian rose just 11 per cent in the same period.
The study is based on proxy circular reports made public in 2015 and represents 2014 earnings data, the most recent year available.
Mackenzie believes the slight year-over-year decrease is more likely due to a more conservative change in the valuation for stock options rather than the start of a trend, though, he said, it’s hard to tell because the breakdown of stock-based compensation is convoluted.
The report also found that share grants are overtaking stock options as the preferred way to reward company heads.
Stock options dropped from 21 per cent of pay in 2008 to 13 per cent in 2014 while share grants increased from 26 per cent in 2008 to 39 per cent in 2014.
Mackenzie believes that could be a response to criticism of the use of stock options for compensation, especially given the way the options are taxed — at half the rate base salary — is as if it were a capital gain rather than income.
“So from an after-tax perspective, a dollar received from the exercise of a stock option is worth two dollars of salary income,” he said.
He believes reforming the tax system might be the most efficient system of trying to rein in excessive executive compensation because other ways such as shareholder votes, or say on pay or board of director oversight have not worked.
However, he said, be it through grants, options or simply giving out shares, the real problem with including shares in CEO compensation packages is a false incentive that does not reflect the value they add to a company.
“Most of the compensation of these executives is not based on how their companies performed in the real markets that they actually have some ability to influence,” he said.
“It’s based on the performance of the shares of the company in a market in which the executive can’t control at all.”
For example, he said, there will likely be a big drop in compensation of CEOs in the oil sector in 2015, as their packages will reflect their companies’ share prices which have declined due to the plunging price of crude.
“It didn’t have anything to do with what any of these people did,” he said.
“The criteria that drive the incentive-based compensation, you would think, ought to be based on how the company does based on those same comparables but it doesn’t.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged during his campaign to limit the amount employees can claim through stock-option deductions, but has since said that would only apply to new stock options that have yet to be granted.
“It could drive down our reliance on stock options if the tax regime is changed,” Mackenzie said.
“But I don’t think we’re going to turn the corner on this unless the governments start to do some really extraordinary things about excessive pay.”
— With files from Dana Flavelle