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CEO pay cuts could be just the start

James Gorman (from left), Tim Cook and David Solomon. (Bloomberg and AFP/Getty Images via CNN)

(CNN) — Corporate boards are slashing the pay of some leading chief executive officers in a new trend that could just be getting started.

The pay cuts are hitting some of America’s best-known and highest-paid bosses, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman and Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon.

The moves follow a dreadful year in the stock market — 2022 was the S&P 500’s worst year since 2008 — and come as a growing number of corporations lay off rank-and-file workers to brace for a potential recession.

For example, Goldman Sachs laid off 3,200 employees earlier this month amid a downturn in Wall Street dealmaking. The bank then disclosed on Friday that Solomon’s 2022 pay is being cut by nearly 30%. Goldman Sachs’ profit dropped 49% last year as the slowdown in dealmaking curbed advisory fees.

“This is a show of solidarity. CEOs need to share the pain,” said Nell Minow, vice chair of ValueEdge Advisors, which advises institutional investors on corporate governance matters.

A similar pay cut could be coming for Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google parent Alphabet.

After Alphabet announced 12,000 job cuts this month, Pichai told employees that top executives would take a “very significant” pay cut, Business Insider reported. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Still overpaid’

But don’t feel too badly for these top execs. They’re still raking in serious cash and stock awards, just not quite as much as in the past.

Apple, for example, said it is cutting the target pay package of Cook by 40%. But that still leaves him with a massive $49 million in total compensation.

“They are still overpaid. Let me be super clear about that,” said Minow.

Among the 500 largest public companies by revenue, the median CEO made $14.2 million in fiscal 2021, up 18.9% from the year before, according to the latest research from Equilar.

Tech bosses have received the biggest pay hikes, with the median CEO pay surging by 42.1% in 2021 to $19.1 million, Equilar said.

Say on pay effect?

Earlier this month, Morgan Stanley announced Gorman made $31.5 million in total compensation for 2022, down 10% from the year before. The Wall Street bank said its compensation committee took into consideration the fact that “in a challenging economic and market environment firm performance for 2022 was not as strong as the prior year” when it enjoyed record results.

Minow is relieved that some boards are imposing pain on CEOs.

“That’s exactly the way pay is supposed to work,” Minow said. “The problem with pay traditionally is it’s been all upside and no downside. CEOs would often get all the credit and money for good times and then blame El Niño or some extraneous force for the downside. Now they are being forced to accept more responsibility.”

Of course, some of that responsibility is coming because the rules have changed.

After the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, regulators have required public companies to give shareholders a voice on compensation issues. So-called “Say on Pay” votes are advisory, meaning companies can still go forward even if 100% of shareholders vote no. Still, having shareholders reject pay packages is an embarrassment companies try to avoid.

Last year, JPMorgan Chase suffered a blow when its shareholders voted down a massive $52.6 million retention bonus that was planned for CEO Jamie Dimon.

This month, JPMorgan announced Dimon’s pay will be unchanged at $34.5 million — even though wages are rising for average workers. The bank also said it decided not to give Dimon a special award for the year.

That means Dimon’s pay isn’t budging even as wages go up for many employees.