Bosses' pay and WPP
You don't need telling that the onset of the worst global recession since the 1930s has led to a sharp rise in bankruptcies among small businesses and to hundreds of thousands of job losses.
But 2008 wasn't especially painful for a typical chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, according to a new independent survey by Manifest, the "governance" service that advises big investors.
It calculates that the median total remuneration for a FTSE 100 chief executive rose 7% last year to £2.6m.
That's quite a fur coat to protect against the chill economic winds.
And it rather explodes the idea that the financial interests of the owners and managers of our big companies are closely and directly aligned: the value of FTSE 100 companies fell just under 30% in the same period.
Which is not to argue that most FTSE chief executives were personally responsible for the economic and stock-market meltdown: that particular honour was reserved for their chums in banking, financial engineering, regulation, central banking and government.
But most FTSE bosses profited handsomely - in the form of huge increases in their pay and bonuses - from the unsustainable economic bubble created by the irresponsible lending of reckless bankers.
Here's the thing.
The FTSE superstars weren't shouting loudly in the preceding few years that the increased profits being generated by their respective companies had little connection with their own brilliance but were the short-term manifestation of an overheated economy.
They weren't saying "don't reward me for profits that won't last".
So many shareholders would say that that their pay should have fallen to earth in 2008, when the laws of economic gravity reasserted themselves over the earnings of their respective businesses.
And what some will find particularly shocking is that the cash bonus paid to the typical CEO was unchanged at £514,000.
Why was any bonus paid last year?
If you say that it's because these executives hit their targets over a period of years and they were therefore contractually entitled to these payments - well, hundreds of thousands of employees did precisely what was expected of them over the same period and are now without jobs.
The burden of national sacrifice required to get us through this mess does not appear to have been evenly distributed.
Statistics can of course be misleading. So it's also worth looking at the average remuneration of FTSE chief executives as well as the median (for those who've been out of school for a bit, the median is the pay of the boss right in the middle of a league table of executives ranked according to size of pay packet, whereas the average is simply the sum of what they're paid divided by 100).
Average pay rose a bit less, by 2%, to a whisker under £4m. But it still rose.
As for the longer term trend, the average remuneration of FTSE 100 chief executives increased 295% over the past decade, compared with a rise of just 44% for employees. So the ratio of average CEO pay to employee pay has risen from 47 times to 128.
Which perhaps could be justified if shareholders had been enriched by FTSE 100 performance. But the FTSE 100 index stood at 5,896 on 31 December 1998 and it was 4,562 ten years later - a fall of 23%.
On this analysis, the typical FTSE 100 leader has been handsomely rewarded for impressive value destruction.
And what's striking is the number of companies putting in place new incentive schemes right now, when share prices and profits are at a cyclical low - which more-or-less guarantees that remuneration will be ratcheted up again in the years to come.
A conspicuous example is WPP's "third leadership equity acquisition plan".
This, as its name suggests, is the third scheme of its sort that provides potentially spectacular rewards to a smallish number of senior executives (24 last time) at Europe's biggest advertising group.
The scheme is built around the number "five": eligible executives invest up to five times their "annual target earnings" in WPP shares; the performance of the company against its leading competitors is then measured over five years; and the executives can receive a reward of up to five shares for every one they hold, with the maximum payout being made if the company performs better than 90% of its competitors.
Some have calculated that the reward for the chief executive and founder, Sir Martin Sorrell, could be around £60m, if all went well. But that calculation is made on the assumption that WPP's share price doesn't rise over the coming few years - which would be very odd, since presumably the worst advertising recession in living memory will end one of these days.
So Sir Martin's profit from this scheme could be a multiple of £60m.
And in this case, quantum is absolutely the point.
Sir Martin and his colleagues have done very well out of previous schemes. They've been rewarded as though they were risk-taking entrepreneurs who owned their business outright.
But they are not owner-managers. This business is controlled by external shareholders. Sir Martin and his colleagues are employed by big institutions who are stewards for the retirement savings of millions of people.
The question for these shareholders, who vote later today on whether to approve this super-generous share scheme, is whether Sir Martin and his team are really going to be demotivated if they don't have the opportunity to earn five times the return of other investors in the company.
At this dire stage of the economic cycle, where exactly would Sir Martin and his team pitch up to receive the job security and perks of a giant multinational and the rewards of a small entrepreneurial company?
Today's WPP vote will be a bit like taking an X-ray of the big investment institutions: will it show that they've had the operation and that they've had their spines re-implanted?
UPDATE, 16:41: A majority of shareholders this afternoon voted in favour of WPP's stunningly remunerative share scheme. So Sorrell and his top team will still have a motive to turn up for work.
Suggestions that shareholders are on a mission to impose a new puritanism in British boardrooms were a bit premature.