Inside the kerfuffle over GM CEO's pay package

February 28, 2013: 9:15 AM ET

GM is hamstrung by its relationship with the U.S. government - but not for long.

By Doron Levin

Dan Akerson

Dan Akerson

FORTUNE -- Pity poor Dan Akerson, chairman and chief executive officer of General Motors Co.

Not only does he earn a third of what his peers in Detroit are paid to run global automobile companies, he gets beaten up by the Oversight Committee of the House of Representatives that issued the (seemingly false) report that he's seeking a raise.

The silver lining in his and GM's (GM) cloud is that the U.S. Treasury has been selling off its stake in the company. Once that process is complete, probably sometime this year, Akerson no longer needs government permission for a raise. He could, therefore, stand to receive $25 million or $30 million from GM's board -- a big jump from last year's $9 million.

Darrell Issa, chairman of the committee, criticized Akerson's pay package earlier this week, saying "you don't take an increase when your investors are in the negative," a reference to the U.S. Treasury, which stands to lose up to $12 billion on the 2008-2009 bailout of bankrupt GM.

MORE: The auto industry's best-kept secret

Trouble is, Akerson earned the same $9 million for 2012 that he earned in 2011. He actually was paid $11.1 million in 2012, an amount that included an award of restricted stock from a year earlier and only vested last year. Last month the government's Inspector General criticized the Treasury's special master for executive compensation, saying she had allowed excessive compensation for GM and other companies aided under TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

A GM statement read "Dan (Akerson) specifically asked to keep his compensation at the same level for 2013 as it was in 2012 and 2011. That amount of $9 million is what the company submitted to the Office of the Special Master for TARP Executive Compensation."

The Treasury has struggled to strike a balance between what is a reasonable amount to pay top executive of companies that received U.S. government aid and what those same companies must pay in the competition to attract top talent. The struggle comes as taxpayers evaluate whether pay packages are "fair" in light of government aid extended to the companies.

Whatever one's opinion about whether CEO pay packages are fair, the benchmark in Detroit is set by Alan Mulally at Ford Motor Co. (F) and Sergio Marchionne at Chrysler LLC. Mulally earned just less than $30 million in 2011; Marchionne was paid more than $22 million that year by Fiat Industrial and Fiat Automotive, which controls Chrysler.

MORE: 10 reasons why you should still worry about GM

Because CEOs at Ford and Chrysler earn far more than Akerson, it's likely that pay packages for lower-ranking GM executives also fall below those of their counterparts across town. Nevertheless, GM on Monday announced it had filched a senior marketing executive from Volkswagen of America: Tim Mahoney becomes GM's global chief marketing officer for Chevrolet.

GM is understood to have pursued Mahoney "for some time," according to a source knowledgeable about the matter, the issue of his pay an element of the negotiations. They even played into the search for a CEO at one point. Executive turnover at GM has been brisk since the bankruptcy -- replacing lost executives all the more difficult due to government strictures in place limiting pay packages.

Starting later this year when the Treasury sells its last GM share of stock, Akerson can look forward to some richer paydays. And GM will have more money at its command to attract, and perhaps retain, the hottest auto executives.

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