There's No Recession for (Most) Insurance CEOs

Last Updated Aug 14, 2009 12:38 PM EDT

Life has changed for a lot of people this year. While the government gamely predicts that the recession is over, the other corner of its mouth is saying unemployment will top 10 percent.

But here's some good news: insurance CEOs are still making money. A study by compensation research firm Equilar shows that, among the largest financial firms, five executives ranked in the top 10 in 2008. Do they deserve all this shareholder largesse? Equilar provides some yardsticks.

The leader in the compensation competition is Travelers Companies' Jay Fishman at $16.8 million, down 10 percent from last year. Fishman is well-paid, perhaps because he's navigated the property casualty insurer through the recession with minimal loss. Total return is off by only 14 percent.

Prudential CEO John Strangfeld was extremely close at $16.3 million. The nation's second largest life insurer's total return wasn't anywhere near as good, down 67 percent. But shareholders likely cut him some slack: he's new on the job, replacing Art Ryan, who got about $25 million a year.

By these standards, Chubb CEO John Finnegan definitely deserved his $12.6 million, off just 3 percent from last year. Total return at this high-end property insurer was down just 4 percent.

Ameriprise Financial is a financial services company that considers itself an insurer when looking for government money, so we will too. CEO James Cracchiolo's pay was cut in half to $12 million after a few missteps in variable annuities and other products. Total return was off 56 percent, but he still did better than his company. Longtime Aflac CEO Daniel Amos saw a 10 percent drop in pay to $10.8 million at the disability insurer, with total return down 25 percent.

Some other CEOs deserve honorable mention. MetLife's Rob Henrikson didn't make the list but received about $24.5 million in 2008. Auto insurer Progressive paid Glenn Renwick $8.4 million, possibly because the company, which is in a head-to-head battle with Berkshire Hathaway's GEICO, saw total return decline by only 22 percent.

And speaking of Berkshire, CEO Warren Buffett took home $200,000, according to Equilar. Buffett has been critical of his own performance and Berkshire is cutting back sharply in its reinsurance operations. But don't look for Warren to collect unemployment insurance anytime soon. He remains one of the world's richest people.

Last, and unmentioned even by Equilar, is poor (by these standards) American International Group CEO Ed Liddy, who took the job for $1 a year. Needless to say, Liddy now wants out. As one Congressman put it, he has "the thanks of a grateful nation" for taking on a dirty job that no one else wanted. And you can take that to the bank.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.