San Diegans pay sunshine tax

Living costs here 50% higher

San Diego’s cost of living tops the nation’s by 50 percent, but household incomes are only about 20 percent higher. Ergo, squeezed San Diegans live on “psychic income,” or pay a “sunshine tax.” But according to a new study, some locals are not paying that tax: the chief financial officers of large corporations. They are doing better than their counterparts who live in nasty climates.

Chief financial officers, or CFOs, are companies’ chief bean counters. Former San Diegan Graef Crystal, one of the nation’s reigning experts on executive compensation, recently wrote on CFO pay for his website, He studied 2007 pay for 578 CFOs in companies that the stock market values at $3 billion or more. Bottom line: they are raking in good bucks.

I asked him to figure out how the remuneration of head bean counters at five large San Diego companies compared with pay of their counterparts elsewhere. He considered two factors for comparison: the size of the company as measured by 2007 revenue, and the pay risk in the CFO’s pay package — that is, what percentage of total pay represented stock options, which are more hazardous than, say, a nice fat bonus.

William Keitel, CFO of digital wireless telecom superstar Qualcomm, raked in $6.5 million last year. According to the size of the company and the pay risk, “He should have made $4.6 million,” says Crystal. So his pay was 41 percent above the market. Qualcomm stock rose 17.8 percent during the period of measurement, while the general market was going up 16.4 percent.

Sempra Energy CFO Mark Snell was paid $4 million, but he should have made $3 million based on size and risk, says Crystal. On the other hand, the stock went up at more than twice the rate of the overall market.

David Hoffmeister, CFO of biotech Invitrogen, made $2.2 million, a bit ahead of the $2 million he should have made by Crystal’s reckoning. But Invitrogen stock beat the market by 60 percent. “That’s a fantastic performance,” says Crystal.

Christian Henry, CFO of biotech Illumina, made $3.9 million last year, 82 percent over the market as Crystal calculates it. On the other hand, Illumina stock rose ten times more than the overall market.

There is one exception: Brett Sandercock, CFO of ResMed, which makes products for sleep-disordered breathing. Sandercock, based in the company’s Australian office, brought home $1.2 million, which is 46 percent below the market. ResMed stock declined 12.1 percent during the period, while the overall market was going up about that much. “Lousy performance and not good pay,” says Crystal. Companies respond that stock market performance is only one variable in setting an executive’s pay.

A CFO’s pay tends to be too high if the chief executive is also overcompensated. The top boss’s pay is like “a 4000-horsepower vacuum cleaner which sucks into its nozzle any pay package that gets close to the nozzle,” says Crystal. “Unfortunately, a 4000-horsepower vacuum cleaner isn’t enough to even mess up the hair of the worker on the line.” Qualcomm’s chief executive pulled in more than the market, but not much more.

Invitrogen’s chief executive, Gregory Lucier, in pulling down $29 million, made a whopping 583 percent above the market based on company size and pay risk, says Crystal. But the company’s stock has to meet certain future targets. Lucier is not supposed to get another award until the end of next year. Crystal tends to pooh-pooh such declarations, stating that boards of directors often forget that they said they wouldn’t dole out any more for a long period. “You grant it, I count it,” says Crystal.

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So how does SD compensation compare to similarly nice places like Orange County?

If one is to be overpaid, then it's better from the beneficiary point of view to be overpaid a lot... with or without the sunshine!

This article makes me want to go back and become an accounting major as a future San Diego CFO, too... anything not to be one of the mere workers on the floor...

Response to post #5: Over the years, San Diego personal income has been well below that of Orange County, LA, and the Bay Area. Best, Don Bauder

Response to post #1: Ditto. My undergraduate major was business. I only took two accounting courses. I got an A in the basic course but a C in the second one because by then I was working 50 hours a week on the campus newspaper. I never had any desire to be a CFO, and am not cut out for it, but I wish I had majored in accounting. Best, Don Bauder

CFO's are bean counters-nothing more. They should be paid bean counter wages. Let's start allowing a bunch of illegals in from India or some other nation and give them some CFO jobs at 1/1000th of the current rate (they would do it for even less than that I am sure) and see how the CFO's like things.

Come to think of it, lets do that with the CEO's too!

I think the protection of American jobs and the realization of FAIR wages, including those in upper mamangement, would show a big improvement.

Response to post #3: There is agreement all around on this blog that corporate top management salaries are obscene -- egregiously so. I can remember when the CFO job was considered just another management position on a par with, say, marketing. But we live in an era in which greed is rampant. Earnings per share are all-important, so the CFO, who can manipulate EPS, is right at the top. The CEO and CFO can revel in riches in today's mentality. Best, Don Bauder

Response to post #8: Too many times, the ones that make it to CFO are willing to find nefarious ways to jiggle the books, thereby boosting earnings and the already-bloated salaries of the top management. Worldcom and Enron are just egregious examples. There are many other CFOs that don't get caught. Best, Don Bauder

Take it from a long-time beancounter: Just because you "major" in accounting, it doesn't mean you end up being a high-buck CFO. Most of us are just working stiffs, struggling to get by like everybody else.

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