Bush Takes Aim At Huge CEO Pay

President Bush shakes hands with traders during an unscheduled visit to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007.
President Bush took aim Wednesday at lavish salaries and bonuses for corporate executives, standing on Wall Street to issue a sharp warning for corporate boards to "step up to their responsibilities" and tie compensation packages to performance.

Mr. Bush's "State of the Economy" speech, delivered from the financial center of the world, was aimed at bringing his economic message out of the shadows of the Iraq war. On his second day in a row focused on the economy, the government reported faster-than-expected growth of 3.5 percent in the final quarter of last year.

The president acknowledged people's continuing nervousness about their financial picture, despite a string of similar reports that provide some reason for optimism. He said he realized that stories about the enormous salaries and other perks for CEOs, for instance, create anger and uncertainty that affect the country's investors.

The president does not endorse any government role in reducing those packages. Instead, Mr. Bush highlighted new federal rules that the administration thinks are a better path toward wise compensation decisions by companies.

"Government should not decide the compensation for America's corporate executives," he said. "But the salaries and bonuses of CEOs should be based on their success at improving their companies and bringing value to their shareholders."

In effect starting last month, the rules give investors access to clearer and more detailed information from public companies on their top executives' pay packages and perks. Their impact will become apparent as corporations begin issuing 2006 annual reports.

"America's corporate boardrooms must step up to their responsibilities," Mr. Bush said. "You need to pay attention to the executive compensation packages that you approve. You need to show the world that America's businesses are a model of transparency and good corporate governance."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has said he will push legislation to require shareholder approval of executive compensation plans. And a separate bill before the Senate to raise the minimum wage would fund accompanying tax breaks to ease the burden on small businesses by capping executives' tax-deferred pay packages at $1 million a year.

Still, even Mr. Bush's words on pay were met with complete silence from the business crowd he addressed.

Huge salaries and other perks for CEO have drawn investor ire and made splashy headlines. Anger over executive compensation unrelated to performance, even as companies stumble, lay off employees or renege on billions of dollars in pension obligations for workers' retirement, has spread from shareholders to union activists and buttoned-down mutual fund trustees. The chasm between executives' salaries and the pay of rank-and-file employees continues to widen.

Home Depot chief executive Bob Nardelli was earning an average of $25.7 million a year — excluding stock options — before he was forced out in a furor over his hefty pay. He left with a severance package worth about $210 million.

In 2001, General Electric Co. paid chief executive Jack Welch $16.25 million. Welch was replaced that year with Jeffrey Immelt, who earned $3.4 million in total annual compensation in 2005.