然而，这也可能仅仅只是个烟幕弹。最近一项由吉尔伯托•洛雷罗（Gilberto Loureiro）、阿尼尔•马奎加（Anil K. Makhija）和张丹（Dan Zhang）三位教授进行的研究表明，多数情况下，1美元的年薪只不过是个公关策略而已。这份研究报告写道：“我们发现，有证据表明1美元的CEO年薪只不过是个策略，用来掩盖这些CEO的寻租行为。因此，根据我们的研究结果，实行所谓1美元的CEO年薪并非像表面看来那样是种牺牲，而是那些更富有、更自负、且具有影响力的CEO的机会主义行为。”
开创1美元年薪先河的是克莱斯勒的前任CEO李•艾科卡（Lee Iacocca）。上世纪70年代，克莱斯勒曾一度陷入危机，只得游说美国政府以寻求援助，为此艾科卡大幅削减了自己的薪水。后来其他CEO也纷纷效仿，其中就包括温迪快餐（Wendy's/Arby's Group）的尼尔森•佩尔兹（Nelson Peltz）、哥伦比亚广播公司（CBS）的萨默•雷石东（Sumner Redstone），以及苹果的史蒂夫•乔布斯、甲骨文的拉里•艾里森、思科的约翰•钱伯斯在内的一大批知名科技公司的高管们。
近年来，更多高管加入了1美元年薪的队伍，其中不乏谷歌的埃里克•施密特和全食超市（Whole Foods）的约翰•麦基等大牌CEO。金融危机期间，美国三大汽车厂商通用、克莱斯特和福特的CEO统统承诺自己只领1美元的薪水。花旗集团的CEO潘伟迪（Vikram Pandit）在2009年和2010年也只是各领了1美元的薪水（不过他的低薪生涯很短暂，花旗集团最近为潘伟迪开出了一份多年期的薪酬方案，总价值超过2，000万美元）。
A CEO who accepts an annual salary of $1 sends a powerful message -- namely, that he or she is a team player who wants to make a sacrifice for the good of the company. True, the executive is probably receiving generous stock options on the side, but those payments depend on the corporation's success. The buck-a-year salary is a grand gesture, intended to broadcast the CEO's confidence in the future of the business.
It may also be a smokescreen. A recent study by Professors Gilberto Loureiro, Anil K. Makhija, and Dan Zhang says that, in many cases, $1 paydays are nothing more than public relations ploys: "We find evidence consistent with the view that $1 CEO salaries are a ruse hiding the rent-seeking pursuits of CEOs adopting these pay schemes," they wrote. "Thus, rather than being the sacrificial acts they are projected to be, our findings suggest that adoptions of $1 CEO salaries are opportunistic behavior of the wealthier, more overconfident, influential CEOs."
The $1 salary was pioneered by former Chrysler head Lee Iacocca, who slashed his pay in the late 1970s while the struggling car company lobbied the government for help. Other CEOs followed suit: Nelson Peltz of Wendy's/Arby's Group (WEN), Sumner Redstone of CBS (CBS), and a flurry of tech executives including Apple's (AAPL) Steve Jobs, Oracle's (ORCL) Larry Ellison, and Cisco's (CSCO) John Chambers.
The idea has gained even more traction in recent years, with corporate leaders like Google's (GOOG) Eric Schmidt and Whole Foods' (WFM) John Mackey embracing it. During the financial crisis, the CEOs of automakers GM (GM), Chrysler, and Ford (F) all pledged to pay themselves a dollar. So did Citigroup (C) chief Vikram Pandit, who received a single greenback in 2009 and 2010 (his asceticism was short-lived: the bank recently awarded Pandit with a multi-year pay package worth more than $20 million.
It's no secret that these self-abnegating chieftains often make up what they lose in salary by loading up on stock options. Loureiro and his co-authors looked at the total compensation for the fifty CEOs of publicly listed companies who made $1 or less between 1992 and 2005 and found that, when equity-based pay was included, they made just as much as their peers did. The $1 CEOs gave up a median of $610,000 in annual wages, but they gained more than $2 million in incremental options awards.
Stock compensation can be a good thing. When CEOs forgo a large salary or bonus in exchange for equity, they align their wealth with the company's success, which should motivate them to pursue growth. According to the study, this "alignment hypothesis" is the most frequently cited rationale for the $1 salary. But it isn't supported by the facts. The authors found that the companies that cut CEO pay didn't have a demonstrable need to align executive performance with results. They also didn't have significant growth opportunities or a history of rewarding leaders with options.
The alignment hypothesis is further undermined by the high rate of turnover amongst $1 CEOs. Once the salary plan was discontinued, only 48% of the CEOs who accepted the cut stayed in their positions. Between 1993 and 2001, total turnover amongst the CEOs of publicly traded companies was just 9%.
The study's authors argue that the stunt salary is better explained by the "managerial power hypothesis," which posits that $1 CEOs are pursuing their own interests. The businesses that instituted $1 salaries, they wrote, had weaker corporate governance. Only 34% had independent compensation committees, compared to an average of 67%. Power at the $1 companies was concentrated at the top; their CEOs had an average ownership stake of 10% (vs. their peers' 3.2%). Outside institutions owned just 53% of the companies (vs. 61%).
One dollar CEOs are wealthy and confident, even more so than the average executive. This further corroborates the managerial power hypothesis, the study says, because rich and brash leaders are more likely to pursue their own agendas. A whopping 30% of $1 CEOs were on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, compared to an average of less than 5% among CEOs in general. They were twice as likely to be described in news reports as "optimistic" or "confident."
Confidence alone isn't cause for concern. But the study also found that $1 CEOs frequently had issues that made them vulnerable to public outrage, like pending government inquiries, corporate underperformance, and personal dilemmas. Of the 50 CEOs who accepted a $1 salary, 25 had explicit public relations risks. That could be a coincidence -- but the authors doubt it: "It is not surprising that this group has chosen to adopt $1 salaries as camouflage for their benefits."
If that seems cynical, consider this: In the first year after companies announced $1 CEO salaries, they achieved returns on assets that were comparable to their peers; after that, their returns deteriorated. One-dollar companies significantly underperformed their peers in the stock market after three years.
The authors' findings are damning -- but they may not be completely conclusive, according to another recent study. This one, authored by Sophia J.W. Hamm, Michael J. Jung, and Clare Wang, looked at the different CEOs taking $1 salaries and found vast disparities within the group.
While the executives who received higher total paydays were likely to underperform going forward, they wrote, those who actually did receive lower pay packages were likely to achieve improved stock returns and performance. In the end, the $1 salary was irrelevant; what mattered was the bottom line.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Ford Motor Co. received a federal bailout. This has been corrected.