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Facebook pay checks make Wall Street look cheap

February 16, 2012: 10:00 AM ET

Facebook's $31 million woman: Sheryl Sandberg

Pay at the social media company makes Wall Street's fat cats look skinny.

Where's the Occupy Facebook movement?

Earlier this month, when the social media company filed for its initial public offering most of the attention was focused on the fact that Facebook could be worth as much as $100 billion. But what didn't get a lot of attention, or scrutiny, was what the company pays its top executives. It's a ton - $83 million in 2011 alone. It's hard to say what's fair when it comes to paying top executives. That is, in part, how boards get away with approving large paydays. Facebook's huge success, too, blunts criticism. Even my colleague, Allan Sloan, didn't include executive pay on his list of things wrong with Facebook's IPO.

One yardstick, though, could be Wall Street, which is routinely singled out for its over-the-top compensation. Compared to Facebook, Wall Street pay looks like peanuts. The only bank that comes close to Facebook is JP Morgan Chase (JPM). That bank's five highest-paid executives got $79 million in 2010 (none of the banks have said what they paid in 2011 yet), nearly $4 million less than Facebook.  But Dimon & Co. manage a company with 239,831 employees, compared to Facebook's 3,200. None of the other banks really come close. Bank of America's (BAC) top eight executives got paid a collective $28 million, less than Sheryl Sandberg took home alone.

Based on profits, Facebook's pay only looks more ludicrous.  The company paid its executives equal to 8% of its bottom line last year. That was 10 times Goldman Sachs (GS), whose executives take home pay was less than 1% of that firm's profits. Morgan Stanley's (MS) executive compensation equaled 1.2% of profits. Wells Fargo was just 0.4%. Yes, much of Facebook's pay is in stock, and some of it's restricted, but so is Wall Street. And the vesting periods at Facebook are relatively short - nothing like Apple's CEO Tim Cook who will have to wait until 2021 to get all of his pay - and the conditions are all based on time, not performance.

You can make the case that start-ups have to pay out a higher ratio of their bottom line in pay than a big bank would because they don't make a lot of money. But Facebook isn't your typical start-up. It's bottom line is already $1 billion. What's more, in the year before Google (GOOG) went public back in 2004, the search firm top executives collectively received just $2.2 million in pay. Of course, those guys were set to get a huge payday from IPO, but so is Zuckerberg and Co.

At the height of the financial crisis, it looked like we were on the verge of some kind of shift in executive pay. There was a public outcry over AIG's retention bonuses. A bonus tax was floated in Washington. Obama appointed a pay czar. What happened?

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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