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Execs make bank while stocks tank

Overall executive compensation was little changed last year, despite generally poor stock performance, research firm says.

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By Ben Rooney, CNNMoney.com staff reporter

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Compensation for top executives at many of the nation's largest publicly traded firms was essentially unchanged last year, even as the stock market plummeted, according to a study released Thursday.

The Corporate Library, a corporate governance research firm that focuses on executive compensation, said the median change in total compensation for chief executives was a decline of less than 0.1%.

The drop was small considering the dramatic declines in the stock market last year, and suggests "that the link between CEO pay and firm performance remains very weak," the report said.

Nevertheless, it was the first time CEO pay declined since the group began tracking such data in 2002, and came after a 4% increase in 2007.

The results also indicated that 75% of CEOs received an increase in their base salary. That's up from 73% the year before.

The survey was based on data from 2008 proxy statements issued by more than 2,000 publicly traded companies.

Executive compensation has been in the spotlight recently after a number of big financial firms gave employees huge bonuses last year despite spectacular losses on Wall Street.

However, the report showed that chief executives did not escape last year's market collapse unscathed.

The median change in total realized compensation, which includes the value of vested and exercised stock awards, was down 6.4% last year, compared with a gain of 7.5% in 2007.

Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone Group (BX), was the highest paid CEO in 2008, taking home $702.4 million in salary and stock options. The report notes that the figure was affected by a large stock award Schwarzman received when Blackstone went public in 2007.

A Blackstone spokesman said Schwarzman's compensation was only $350,000 last year and called the report "totally misleading."

Schwarzman was the only CEO from a financial services company to make the top 10 highest paid executives after Wall Street executives dominated the list in previous years.

Oracle Chief Executive Lawrence Ellison, 2007's highest paid CEO, was second on the list, pocketing nearly $557 million.

The bulk of Ellison's compensation came from exercised stock options, which totaled $543 million from a whopping 36 million options. That's despite a 21% drop in Oracle's (ORCL, Fortune 500) share price over 2008.

The next seven CEOs on the list all oversee energy companies, with a median payday of $114 million. Among the energy barons on the list: Ray Irani of Occidental Petroleum (OXY, Fortune 500), John Hess of Hess Corp. (HES, Fortune 500) and Michael Watford of Ultra Petroleum. (UPL)

In a separate report released earlier this week, the Corporate Library identified five CEOs who received compensation packages they deemed unusually large compared with the relatively poor performance of the company's stock.

Michael Jeffries, chief executive of retail apparel maker Abercrombie & Fitch, was one of the "highest paid worst performing" CEOs, according to the report. Jeffries was also No. 9 on the list of the 10 highest-paid CEOs.

A call requesting comment from Abercrombie & Fitch was not immediately returned.

Earlier this week, after a handful of major corporations announced plans to change the way they pay their employees based on guiding principles set forth by The Conference Board, a business research firm.

AT&T (T, Fortune 500), Cisco Systems (CSCO, Fortune 500) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500) were among the companies that agreed to adopt the principles, which include efforts to clearly link pay to performance, provide fair and "affordable" compensation, eliminate excessive golden parachutes, ensure board oversight and increase transparency with shareholders.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve is said to be preparing a proposal that would give the central bank the power to oversee pay practices at some of the biggest financial institutions.  To top of page

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