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Declined CEO bonuses aren’t always as heartwarming as they appear

Reuters/Carlo Allegri
A season for giving back.
By Max Nisen
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Network Rail CEO Mark Carne declined his bonus today, taking accountability for a rail work fiasco that forced a shutdown of busy King’s Cross station in London on the Saturday after Christmas. Plum Creek Timber CEO Rick Holley was similarly contrite this month when he returned a stock award, as a show of solidarity with shareholders who’ve suffered this year from a decline in the value of their investment in the Seattle-based company.

Such acts of repentance by a CEO—more common during the recession, but less so now—are a way of signaling to the market that management is serious about turning things around. But for companies and shareholders, the savings from a bonus forgone or repaid are rarely significant in an environment where the norm for executive pay has gotten so incredibly high and often divorced from performance.

Take a closer look at the numbers, and you’ll notice that these bonuses often represent just a fraction of total compensation. Here’s a roughly chronological (but not comprehensive) list of executives who recently returned or declined bonuses. Compare their sacrificed pay to their total pay:

In the case of Oracle’s Larry Ellison, the cash bonus he declined in 2013 was almost nothing compared to his stock based compensation.

Note that because of the way bonuses are calculated, it’s sometimes hard to determine the exact amount these executives have sacrificed. Their bonuses (or would-be bonuses) often comprise a complicated mix of share price-based incentive pay, options, and guaranteed cash. For example, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty’s target bonus for 2013 was $4 million, but she actually may have declined as much as $8 million (paywall).

Some executives have gone further than others in showing remorse or taking responsibility for a company’s troubles. Lenovo’s Yang Yuanqing passed his declined bonus along to hourly employees. And Simon Wolfson, the CEO of Next, has done the same with his stock bonuses two years running.

But put in context, many of these decisions look mostly publicity-oriented. Real economic hardship for a company tends to lead to pay cuts or job losses for people lower on the corporate ladder, who are much less able to afford it than top executives who’ve been taking home CEO-grade pay.

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