Rick Wagoner's golden retirement

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As General Motors (GM) former CEO Rick Wagoner says his farewells at the company where he has worked for over thirty years, he is not receiving the sort of "golden parachute" severance package that has recently fueled populist rage. However, his pension, valued at roughly $23 million, has already raised more than a few eyebrows.

Given the recent scandals at Merrill Lynch and AIG, some analysts are gleefully rubbing their hands together as they prepare to feast on Wagoner's bones. After all, his outsize pension makes the former CEO seem like the kind of bloated, self-important business executive who has led America into economic disarray. Beyond that, outrage at executive compensation is pretty much the order of the day, and Wagoner is a big, fat, $23 million target. But does he deserve the many arrows of righteous indignation being shot his way?

It is worth noting, in Wagoner's defense: he has not received a penny of severance pay, nor will he. His pension, large as it is, cannot reasonably be compared with the work-for-18-months-collect-$10-million packages that so liberally litter Wall Street (and have drained so many companies' coffers). First off, Wagoner will not receive that money in a lump sum: rather, he will continue to get monthly payments for the rest of his life. Second, he has been paying into this pension for the last three decades; he did not receive it as a gift from GM's board of directors, nor is it some sort of executive payoff or non-competition agreement, as was the case in many of the recent scandals.

While Wagoner's pension seems huge, it says a lot more about GM's traditional attitudes toward employee compensation than it does about the business climate of the past few years. GM has a history of overpaying its employees; this, in fact, has been cited as one of Wagoner's basic problems during his tenure in charge of the company. After restructuring retirement programs in 2006 and cutting workforce and benefits in 2008, Wagoner affirmed earlier this year that the car maker would not cut retiree benefits.

As Wagoner rides off into the sunset, many point out that his ouster seems to be a largely symbolic gesture, as his successor, Fritz Henderson, was already the heir apparent and is expected to follow the same policies as Wagoner. Still, it sends a strong message that CEOs who repeatedly ask for government bailouts may ultimately be asked to fall on their swords.

Of course, sometimes those swords are beautifully gilded ...
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