Jeanne Sahadi Commentary:
Everyday Money by Jeanne Sahadi Column archive
CEOs' free ride ... to Perksville
Sure, there's the big, fat paycheck, the big, fat bonus and the big, fat options. But many CEOs also get some sweet perks as well, often to the tune of millions of dollars.
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Doesn't it often seem like those who can least afford to pay for lunch are always charged for it, and those who can most afford it get it for free?

Well, here's some proof: The typical household makes $46,000 a year, and we all know housing costs eat up the biggest part of most people's budgets. Most, but not all. NewsCorp (Charts) chief Rupert Murdoch made about $26 million in the past year yet his company has begun paying $50,000 a month for an apartment of his.

Quiz
Could You Be CEO?
Do you have the political savvy to scale the executive ranks? The following quiz should give you a clue.
1. You've just taken a new job in an unfamiliar organization and are anxious to make a good impression and rise quickly. The best way to do this is to:
a) Work hard to develop your technical skills while also becoming a player by plunging into power struggles going on around you, taking care to side with the most influential person or group.
b) Build your technical skills, but also take time to analyze what the people above you want to accomplish and devise innovative ways to help them.
c) Keep your head down, work extraordinarily hard, and ignore office intrigue and infighting as a waste of your time and energy.

No matter how much you make, think how much more it would be if you didn't have to use part of your paycheck to pay for one or more of the following: your house, your car, your travel, your insurance, and a big, big chunk of your taxes.

That's not some dope-filled pipe dream. It's a reality for many already astronomically paid CEOs, and sometimes other top officers as well. They enjoy company perks that can save them anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars.

I asked two corporate watchdogs - Paul Hodgson of The Corporate Library and Michelle Leder of Footnoted.org - to help me come up with a sampling list of fairly typical to not-so-typical perks that many top dogs enjoy today.

Housing assistance

If you take a job in another state, some employers might pay for your moving costs, a few months in corporate housing and even help defray the costs of buying a new home by chipping in for real estate commissions, attorneys' fees and the like.

CEOs enjoy that perk, too, although occasionally they and their families will get indefinite access to a pricey corporate apartment for personal use. Atari (Charts) paid over $200k in rent on its chairman Bruno Bonnell's Manhattan apartment last year.

Also, according to Leder, they may get protection from any downturn in the housing market. In a Sept. 7 SEC filing, Clorox (Charts) noted that it will give Donald Knauss, its North American president, a $50,000 loss protection on the sale of his Atlanta, Ga. home.

Not that that's a lot of money, she noted in her blog. "But ...the idea of protecting top executives of publicly traded companies - the very people you'd expect to epitomize the power of free markets - from market forces just because those markets happen to be declining seems more than a bit ironic."

CEOs also might get extra help when they leave the company, even if their job doesn't quite work out. Nike (Charts), for instance, paid outgoing CEO William Perez $3.2 million for the original purchase price of his Portland, Ore. home and the nearly $600,000 he spent on renovations during his year and two months in office.

Not that the handouts aren't shared among the top dogs. Last year, Cendant (which acquired Avis and is now known as Avis Budget Group (Charts)) paid chief administrative officer Linda Coughlin $1.75 million to buy her house.

Tax relief

When you exercise stock options, you're on the hook for the tax bill. When CEOs do it, there are circumstances in which the company will pick up the tax tab for them.

Take mergers, Leder said. The CEO of the company being acquired may sell his stock in that company before the deal closes, and the acquiring company may offer to pay any taxes owed as a result.

One recent example of a CEO enjoying this perk: John Kanas of North Fork Bancorp (Charts), whose company is being acquired by Capital One (Charts). In perusing SEC filings, Leder found that Kanas will have a tax bill approaching $122 million.

As you'll see below, companies also may pay tax bills on other CEO perks that are considered imputed income -- e.g., the cost of anything provided by the company that the executive enjoys in his personal time.

Corporate jet use

CEOs often are allowed to use the corporate jet for personal travel, even if the board doesn't require it for security reasons.

The cost for that use -- including hangar time, fuel, pilots and onboard staff -- is treated as income. But it's often tax-free because the company agrees to pick up the tax bill.

Loans

It used to be that a company could give a "loan" to a top executive for personal use, and then forgive the principal and interest. In addition, the company might also agree to pay whatever taxes are due on the forgiven loan, which would then be considered income.

Thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley, that's illegal now. But loans made before Sarbanes-Oxley took effect are still legal, Leder noted.

Case in point: Home Depot (Charts) CEO Robert Nardelli's $10 million signing loan, which is counted as part of his $250 million pay package. The loan, including interest, was forgiven over 5 years. The company also will be paying the income tax due, possily doubling the cost of the loan to shareholders, Hodgson said.

Life insurance premiums

For most families, life insurance provides a big financial safety net and they're willing to pay for it. But companies may be willing to foot the bill for their CEOs, even after they've left.

Cendant's recent proxy indicates it paid $5.65 million for chairman and CEO Henry Silverman's life insurance premiums.

Life's little pleasures

As perks go, life insurance and taxes are a little dull. But company-paid CEO perks extend down to life's smaller pleasures as well, from season tickets to sports and social club memberships, some of which may extend after a CEO has left office.

Leder found that USI Holdings (Charts) had spent $600,000 for a golf club membership for three top executives.

(If you're interested in keeping up with company reports on the perks it pays for, Leder keeps a running tab on Footnoted.org.)

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If you think CEOs' pay at public companies is high, see what they can earn at private firms, which are luring them away.

The real CEO pay problem

Wealth gap widens

Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNNMoney.com. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at everydaymoney@cnnmoney.com. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.