Outrageous CEO Compensation In Natural Gas

By Will Ashworth | June 23, 2009 AAA

When I read that Chesapeake Energy paid its CEO a year-end bonus of $75 million, despite losing $6 billion in the first quarter, I just had to write something about this glaringly obvious abuse of power. How in good conscience could Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake's CEO, accept such a sum given the state of his business? According to McClendon, he works harder than most in the industry putting in 100-hour weeks for the last 20 years. Are shareholders actually buying into this? Evidently, yes. On June 12, they voted in favor of the three directors standing for re-election. All I can say is be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
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Top Five HoldingsFidelity Select Natural Gas Fund (FSNGX)

Company 2008 CEO Total Compen-sation TTM Operating Income Total Compen-sation to Operating Income
Denbury Resources (NYSE:DNR) $2.52M $712.00M 0.35%
Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) $100.07M $4.97B 2.01%
Range Resources (NYSE:RRC) $5.44M $755.00M 0.72%
Southwestern Energy (NYSE:SWN) $6.80M $214.00M 3.18%
Plains Exploration (NYSE:PXP) $25.30M -$2.87B N/A

Fair Compensation
I believe CEOs should receive a wage that recognizes the stress they endure as both the leader and visionary of their companies, but not so excessive that it sets them apart as saints and saviors. Without the hard work of those on the front line, chief executives wouldn't have a job, let alone one that pays $100 million or more annually. The fact that Mr. McClendon worked all those hours was his choice, and his alone. That shouldn't matter when setting his compensation today and into the future. It seems that R.W. Tillerson, Exxon's (NYSE:XOM) CEO is more than happy with his $22.41 million total compensation in 2008, despite his company generating $72.63 billion in operating income in the last 12 months. That's a ratio of 0.03%, much lower than the five listed above, including Mr. McClendon's company. (For more, read Executive Compensation: How Much Is Too Much?)

Leading By Example
Denbury Resources strikes me as a company that leads by example. CEO Gareth Roberts has been at the helm since 1992, and in that time his company has made money more often than not, including the past six years, increasing net income every year to the end of 2008. More importantly to shareholders, its stock is up 500%. I'd say that's money well spent on a CEO. Compare Debury to Chesapeake Energy. Chesapeake's also seen 10 consecutive years of profits, albeit losing ground in the past two years. Since the end of 2003, Chesapeake's stock is up 227.5%. That's good when compared to the S&P 500, not so good when compared to Denbury and its reasonably paid CEO. If you are a shareholder of Chesapeake Energy, why aren't you asking questions of your CEO? It strikes me as odd that more large institutions aren't doing so, especially with its stock down over 60% in the past year.

Bottom Line
It appears CEO compensation in the natural gas industry is no different than any other. There are those who set a good example and those who don't. Denbury is the former and Chesapeake the latter. You decide which is the better stock to own. (To learn more, check out our Oil And Gas Industry Primer.)

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