There’s one name you won’t find on the various lists of the highest paid CEOs of 2020: Elon Musk. Yet, Forbes calculates he’s the most highly compensated chief executive of all.
Musk was paid about $11 billion last year, by Forbes estimates, all in Tesla stock options awarded to him as part of the audacious compensation plan he inked with the electric carmaker in 2018. That plan, worth $2.3 billion when it was first spelled out, was spread over a decade. But it didn’t start kicking in until 2020.
However, Musk must hold the newly awarded Tesla shares for five years, according to filings. So while he has the right to exercise a total of 33.77 million options from his 2020 awards, he can’t immediately turn around and sell those shares.
While that may be one reason he doesn’t show up in top-paid CEO lists, experts also point out that most analyses of executive pay focus on the grant date of options awards, rather than when they vest.
A lot of this comes down to how companies are required to disclose executive compensation with the Securities and Exchange Commission. “The vast majority of highest paid CEO lists take data straight from summary compensation tables in company filings each year,” explains Jannice Koors, a senior managing director at compensation consulting firm Pearl Meyer.
Equity awards like stock options, however, are disclosed only in the year in which they’re granted. “So, when you’ve got a company that makes what we call a ‘mega grant’ that is meant to cover multiple years, you’re going to have peaks and valleys in the disclosures: The year of the grant will show a big number in the summary compensation table while in following years it won’t show up," Koors says.