Outsized compensation at the upper echelons of U.S. companies is nothing new -- recall the outrage in 2003 caused by the $140 million pay package given to former New York Stock Exchange chief executive Richard Grasso.
But the insult to average workers is perhaps graver today amid job losses, shrunken retirement portfolios and reduced home values. And still fresh many people's mind are last year's record oil prices that depleted wallets and resulted in record profits at oil companies.
It's perhaps not surprising then that chief executives at petroleum companies accounted for seven of the 10 top paid CEOs last year, according to a report published by the Corporate Library, a corporate research firm. Leading the septet was Ray R. Irani, CEO at Occidental Petroleum Corp. (OXY) with a total compensation package that topped $222 million.
But even that amount pales in comparison to the chief executive who topped this year's list: Stephen A. Schwarzman, founder of the Blackstone Group (BX), who raked in more than $702 million last year. Blackstone Group was the only financial services group to make the Top 10 in 2008, not surprising given the woes the industry faced last year.
Schwarzman's bounty isn't only striking for its amount but also for its comparison to how much he earned in 2007, when the company went public -- just over $350,000.
At No. 2, was Larry Ellison, the iconic co-founder of Oracle Corp. (ORCL), a computer software maker, with total pay of $557 million, followed in third place by Irani.
Rounding out the Top 10 was Michael S. Jeffries, top executive at youth-oriented clothing maker Abercrombie & Fitch, who made a mere $71.8 million.
For most CEOs on the Top 10 list, such extraordinary pay packages were achieved through stock options. For example, Ellison cashed in 36 million options for a profit of more than $543 million, according to the CEO pay survey.
The report comes just months after Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appointed a pay czar who will weigh terms of executive pay at those companies that have taken a bailout under the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. They include AIG (AIG), Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC), GM and Chrysler.
Outrage over extraordinary pay packages has resulted in calls for oversight of executive pay, after it was disclosed in February that executives at AIG received more than $170 million in performance bonuses even though the company received nearly $200 billion in federal rescue money after the insurer nearly collapsed.
The Obama administration struck a cautious tone earlier this summer when it suggested that record pay, through the use of stock options, often encourages risk-taking by CEOs that can have disastrous results for a company. Still, the administration said it had no desire to impose ceilings on executive compensation, which some argue may lead to brain drain.
Congress, however, is moving to limit risk-taking by empowering regulators. The House, led by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., earlier this month passed legislation that would give shareholders limited say on pay, through a non-binding vote, along with other provisions.