Say ‘Hey’ to WSJ on Pay

Credit The Wall Street Journal for some good number-crunching and analysis today on a hidden facet of executive pay, which—guess what?—allows execs to take more of their shareholders’ money.

Mark Maremont, one of the Journal’s top investigative reporters (he’s also an editor), finds that some companies have been secretly “turbocharging their executives’ pensions” by using a formula that skews too much toward the benefit of the executives— a fact that’s only been uncovered because of a 2007 regulation requiring more disclosure on executive pay.

The companies, including United Technologies and Hartford Financial, which is in line for government handouts (it’s a long line these days), use an artificially low interest rate to calculate how much loot to give their executives when they cash out their pensions in a lump sum.

Bravo to the Journal for pointing out the rank hypocrisy of these firms, who squeeze pennies from the proles while stuffing millions in the fat cats’ already flush pockets:

Business groups have successfully lobbied Congress to be able to use a less-generous formula when it comes to paying out pensions for regular workers. Pensions for most workers are federally regulated, and corporations argued that their coffers were being depleted by large lump-sum distributions.

That’s neatly juxtaposed in the next graph with this pathetic excuse from the companies:

In defending the way they calculate pension enhancements for executives, some of the companies, including United Technologies Corp. and Dun & Bradstreet Corp., say it’s partly aimed at compensating executives for higher taxes they owe when they take their retirement benefits in a single payment, instead of spread out over their remaining lives. Just-retired executives often owe taxes at a higher average rate than they would years later when their income is down, according to this argument.

I would’ve liked the Journal to explicitly point out that regular workers who retire are also in a higher tax bracket than they will be twenty years down the road, but I’ll take what I can get.

The story is just good explanatory journalism, too. It takes this complex and still pretty-much-hidden issue, explains the formula inolved clearly and shows how it’s been used to fleece investors.

The Journal editorial board will slap back at the news side in 3…2…

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.