Slower pension growth drove down overall compensation for finance chiefs in 2015, even though other components of pay rose despite lackluster stock performance.
CFO pay at 332 large companies fell 1.5% last year, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence.
The median pay for finance executives was $ 3.57 million, down from $ 3.62 million the prior year, based on proxies filed as of June 27. Median shareholder return, meanwhile, was nearly flat at 0.8%.
The data includes only CFOs from S&P 500 companies who held the same role for the previous two years, in an effort to mute the impact of one-time signing bonuses and other payouts common in executive transitions.
This year’s major change was in the rate of pension growth. Pensions and deferred compensation, which are combined in proxy filings, grew by about half as much as they did in 2014, for the 134 companies in the group that listed a figure in that category.
Pension values are more a function of accounting, “driven by actuarial assumptions,” rather than strategic decisions, so they could fluctuate “simply because you change mortality assumptions or discount rates,” said Joseph Sorrentino, managing director of Steven Hall & Partners, an executive-compensation consulting firm.
Total compensation for Jeffrey Bornstein, CFO of General Electric Co. GE 0.03 % fell 18% primarily because of such changes. The value of Mr. Bornstein’s pension increased by $ 1.8 million in 2015, compared with the $ 5.7 million increase recorded in 2014. That contributed to a decline in his total compensation to $ 13.3 million from $ 16.3 million in 2014.
A GE spokesman declined to comment.
Excluding the impact of pension fluctuations and deferred compensation, the median compensation package for finance chiefs rose 2.7% to $ 3.4 million in 2015 from $ 3.3 million in 2014.
Turnover in the CFO post can make precise year-to-year pay comparisons difficult. For example, last year’s top earner was Patrick Pichette, of Alphabet Inc., GOOGL 0.96 % who retired around midyear. He received $ 56.2 million in cash for “the cancellation of his outstanding and unvested equity grants” related to his retirement, pushing his total pay to about $ 57 million.
The second-highest-paid CFO was Harvey Schwartz at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., GS -0.22 % whose compensation totaled $ 20.5 million, including a base salary of $ 1.9 million, a cash bonus of $ 5.7 million and a $ 12.7 million stock award.
Mr. Schwartz has been Goldman’s CFO for 3½ years.
Companies and boards increasingly are focused on setting targets for executives, and tying pay to how well those goals are met, according to executive-compensation experts.
During the past five years, that has meant using a variety of performance benchmarks, instead of basing stock and bonus targets solely on total shareholder return
About 70% of companies now use two or more benchmarks for long-term performance, including indicators such as earnings growth, said Rob Mustich, managing director of Willis Towers Watson.
For CFOs, the median value of stock awards was up 12.5%, to $ 1.5 million, and options awards increased 2.8%, to $ 677,417.
Non-equity incentive awards, such as cash bonuses, which are typically tied to performance, were down 7.4% across all companies, including the companies that didn’t grant awards due to missed targets.
The pay climate also reflects concerns about the overall economy. “Long-term compensation is driven not by the market, but how bullish the company is,” said Bryan Proctor, global leader of Korn/Ferry’s financial officer practice.
Last year’s drop in CFO compensation tracked that of chief executive officers in 2015.
A Wall Street Journal analysis of data of nearly 300 companies in April showed a 3.8% drop in CEO pay.
The declines in pay for both CEOs and CFOs were the first since the 2008-09 financial crisis, when the pay growth rate for CFOs outstripped that of their corporate bosses.
“The gap has closed from where it was before, but the rate at which it is closing has plateaued,” said Andrew Goldstein, leader of advisory firm Willis Towers Watson’s executive compensation practice.
She received $ 31.05 million in total compensation from Alphabet in 2015, including a $ 5 million signing bonus and $ 25 million in stock awards, according to the company’s proxy filing.
—Richard Teitelbaum contributed to this article.