This is not to say that boards always bow to C.E.O.s; some boards will swat executives who fail to meet their metrics. Among C.E.O.s of the 100 largest companies (by revenue) that had filed proxies by April 4, some 26 had been given a pay cut, according to Equilar, an executive compensation data firm. One was Mr. Kent of Coca-Cola, who took a 16 percent cut and may not ultimately get all of his 2013 award if targets aren't met. But even if they made less money, chief executives were making extraordinary sums. Some received substantial raises: David N. Farr, the C.E.O. of Emerson Electric, the industrial giant, took home $25.3 million, up 264 percent from 2012. (Mr. Farr got most of his pay, $21.6 million, in stock.) Mark Polzin, an Emerson spokesman, said that if the company is doing well, the structure of the package might cause a spike in Mr. Farr's pay every few years.
The stocks of many companies posted robust performance in 2013, which could also help drive C.E.O. pay higher.
The pay of John T. Chambers, the long-serving chief executive of Cisco Systems, jumped 80 percent, to $21 million, most of it in stock. The strong returns on Cisco's shares — up 63 percent during the company's 2013 fiscal year — played a substantial role in determining his raise.
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Rupert Murdoch of 21st Century Fox made $26.1 million for the 2013 fiscal year, during which his company's stock rose 46 percent. Disney's shares didn't fare quite as well, gaining 23 percent, and its chief executive, Robert A. Iger, was given a 7 percent pay cut. Still, he made $34.3 million, the second-highest total in the survey. Zenia Mucha, a Disney spokeswoman, said in an email that 93 percent of Mr. Iger's compensation was based on performance.
(Many large companies had not filed proxies by the April 4 survey deadline, including CBS, which filed last week. The CBS chief executive, Leslie Moonves, made more than $65 million in 2013, according to the filings. In June, results of an additional survey, including companies that file through the end of May, will appear in Sunday Business.)
Wall Street executives are still royally rewarded, but the C.E.O.s of financial firms did not often figure in the upper echelons of the pay survey. Lloyd C. Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, who made nearly $20 million, was the highest-paid chief executive at a regulated Wall Street firm. But Mr. Blankfein's compensation was a mere fraction of some of his peers' in the so-called shadow-banking sector, where regulation is much lighter. Publicly traded private equity firms like Blackstone and Apollo Global Management were not included on the list because their revenue was too low, but their chief executives made a fortune last year. Leon D. Black of Apollo earned more than a half-billion dollars in 2013, according to data in company filings, though that included income that would not have been counted in Equilar's survey.
Of the 100 executives on the Equilar list, only nine were women. The highest-paid, Phebe N. Novakovic of General Dynamics, earned $18.8 million, an amount that placed her behind 20 men in the ranking.
The two lowest-paid executives in the survey were Warren E. Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Larry Page of Google — with Mr. Page earning a symbolic $1. But they aren't hurting financially: Both are founders and own stakes in their companies that are worth many billions.
No Perfect Incentives
Executive pay has undergone many changes in recent years to make it more shareholder-friendly. As well as including a plethora of performance metrics, proxies have become more transparent and easier to understand. And shareholders have been given ways to express dissatisfaction over compensation in "say on pay" votes.
"We have pay for performance as we've designed it," said James E. Kim, a managing director at Frederic W. Cooke, a compensation consulting firm. "And it is much better than it was when I started in the business 15 years ago."
But to some skeptics, the new metrics have become an elaborate means to rationalize excessive pay. "The problem with the pay-for-performance approach is that it is simply impossible to create perfect incentives," Lynn Stout, a law professor at Cornell and a critic of the current compensation system. "And if you try, you may in fact create bad incentives."
Ms. Stout places much blame on a crucial tax-code change made in the early 1990s. The rule eliminated tax deductions on compensation above $1 million that wasn't linked to performance. The change, she said, helped prompt widespread use of pay-for-performance metrics. But as that trend grew, pay kept climbing even when shareholder returns suffered.
"I think it's fair to say that the experiment has failed," Ms. Stout said.
Stock-based compensation — options and shares combined — has risen as a percentage of overall pay in recent years. It was 63 percent of the total in 2013, up from 60.2 percent in 2006, according to Equilar. This is meant to be a good thing: Paying in stock can motivate executives to get the share price higher, which, of course, will benefit shareholders.
But as corporate boards place their faith in stock-based plans, they may decide to award even more stock, and when the market is rising, that can lead to enormous paydays when executives eventually cash out. The compensation apparatus, despite its checks and balances, ends up pushing pay ever higher.
"It has always been difficult for shareholders to properly control their managers," Mr. Piketty, the economist, said. "I am not sure that has changed much."
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Government policy makers can continue to leave the pay machine alone, in the belief that they should do little to influence the rules of business. But that stance may be harder to maintain if executive pay continues to be the main cause of income inequality, as Mr. Piketty says.
In 1960, the top 10 percent of earners in the United States took in 33.5 percent of all income, which includes wages and investment returns, according to data in Mr. Piketty's book that is derived from decades of income tax records. By 2010, that share had risen to 47.9 percent. Higher wages were behind two-thirds of that increase, according to his data. Mr. Piketty says that a ballooning of senior executive pay can explain a large proportion of that wage climb.
One remedy might be to extend potentially attractive stock and options awards deeper into the ranks. That already happens at some technology companies, but is not as widespread in companies with lower-paid work forces.
Coca-Cola's new stock plan, for instance, is available to only 5 percent of its work force, a point raised by a critic of the company's compensation, David J. Winters of Wintergreen Advisers, an investment firm. "That's worrisome," he said. "You want people who are motivated and you don't want people who resent the top people."