In rosier times, when corporate profits and rising stock prices were regarded as givens, as they were in the not-too-distant past, it was a relatively simple matter to discern which corporate chieftains were delivering the biggest bang for the buck.

Those taking modest pay hikes but delivering handsome stock returns basked in the admiration of the investment community, while those who pulled in megabucks for measly performances were raked over the coals.

But in 2001, when terrorist attacks jolted the nation, battering an already flagging economy and sending the wobbly stock market into a brief tailspin, some of the would-be angels look a little rumpled and some would-be rogues look fairly reasonable.

Some of the Chicago-area chief executives faring best in a Tribune analysis of pay-for-performance last year did so because their cash pay was slashed when they missed financial performance goals, even as their stock performed well on investor expectations of better days ahead.

And a number of those faring poorly say the disparity between their pay and performance in 2001 will come home to roost in 2002, in the form of bonuses that will be slashed or eliminated based on year-earlier performance.

To be sure, pay appears out of sync with performance in some cases, without any adjustment in sight. But overall, pay-for-performance appears to be the modus operandi in many corporate suites, both here and nationally.

"A large group of CEOs, if not the supermajority, then certainly a majority, seem to be playing by the rules," said Patrick McGurn, director of corporate programs at Institutional Shareholder Services in Rockville, Md.

"Boards adopted standards, at least on short-term cash compensation, and many didn't change them when the market turned south, and the economy did as well."

Shifting compensation

Of course, some did shift the ground rules, McGurn said, finding alternative ways to keep their top executives enriched. And they are likely to get an earful from investors.

And there are cases in which CEOs appear to share the pain by taking cuts in salary and bonus, only to receive mammoth stock option grants, which can pay huge sums down the road if stock prices rise, he noted.

Overall, "pay has not gone down as much as performance has," said Nell Minow, editor of The Corporate Library, a Web site that analyzes executive compensation.

"Go figure--who would've predicted that one?" she quipped.

Still, many top executives in Chicago are taking cuts in cash pay as their corporate performance falters.

Several of the CEOs who ranked best on the Tribune's pay-for-performance analysis--which compares rankings of stock return and change in cash compensation--fall into this category. And some of last year's worst performers are some of this year's best--and vice versa.

Top-ranked Neil Nicastro, head of Midway Games Inc., received no bonus and opted to take no salary in fiscal 2001, the second consecutive year that the company operated at a loss. He received some cash compensation from retirement plan accruals, but in lieu of salary, he took 300,000 stock options.

His pay package had called for a bonus of 2 percent of pretax profits.

"It's crystal clear: You make money, you get paid," said company spokesman Miguel Iribarren.

Investors, meanwhile, were pushing up the stock price on optimism that the company's transition to home video games from arcade games will begin to pay off.