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April 8, 2009 3:41 PM

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Executive Pay: How Much Is Too Much?

It's show-and-tell time for executive paychecks.And with profits and shareholder value falling in the recession, those pay stubs are coming under intense scrutiny....

It's show-and-tell time for executive paychecks.

And with profits and shareholder value falling in the recession, those pay stubs are coming under intense scrutiny. Proxy statements from public companies, which are filed with regulators ahead of annual meetings, detail how high-level executives are compensated.

They are a once-a-year window to what bosses, competitors and suppliers are making.

There almost always can be a debate about compensation packages. It's a dialogue propelled by a disconnect between the millions made by those in the executive suites and the modest paychecks brought home by rank-and-file workers.

The huge payouts are a product of the corporate star system and pressures on boards to demonstrate to Wall Street that they've done everything possible to attract top talent.

One thing is certain -- there will be no need to pass the hat for any of the industry's top names. But they are likely bringing home less than is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Just how much less is sometimes hard to figure.

Take Glenn Murphy, chairman and chief executive officer at Gap Inc. His total reported compensation for 2008 was $9.3 million. About $5.4 million of that was made up of a salary of $1.5 million, nonequity incentive compensation -- really, a bonus -- of $3 million and other compensation and perks valued at $834,434.

The other roughly $4 million in pay is the value assigned to stock and option awards. A company spokeswoman said Murphy did not receive any of that $4 million last year. Similarly, the pay packages of Macy's Inc.'s Terry Lundgren and J.C. Penney Co. Inc.'s Myron E. "Mike" Ullman 3rd contained unrealized awards.

This creates a potential public relations problem for companies if they are seen as doling out even larger sums as consumers are suffering.

Companies report the expense of stock and option grants registered in their accounts, not what the executives actually take home. It has become virtually impossible to cash in on options -- an opportunity afforded to executives to buy company stock at a predetermined price. The general idea is, if the stock price rises, hard-working executives use their options to buy shares at a lower price and turn them around on the open market for gains.

But the recession and credit crisis -- blame for which certainly can't be pinned on anyone in the fashion industry -- has pushed stock prices so low that the equity compensation is not worth as much as it would have been.

The final reckoning, in addition to salary, bonuses and equity grants and options, often includes remuneration in the form of apartments near headquarters, trips in the company airplane, a car and driver and clothing allowances.

So who gets the best perks? We'll have to wait until more proxy statements come in, but even in the down economy the competition will be fierce.
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