Over the last year the total earnings of FTSE 100 executive directors increased by 10.6 per cent at the median, while on the back of some high incentive payouts the mean average rise was even greater at 27.2 per cent. Taken at face value these figures suggest that top directors have continued to prosper even at a time when the wider economy has remained sluggish, but when our latest findings are looked at in more detail a more complicated picture emerges. In particular, the main headline from our latest look at FTSE 100 boardroom pay is that many bonus payments have either stalled or gone into reverse, with around half of all awards either lower or unchanged compared with a year ago. Share-based long-term incentives, however, have moved in the opposite direction, with the value of awards increasing, showing that the drivers that fuel total earnings growth can be complex.

Our latest top pay findings, fully detailed in our newly published Directors’ Pay Report 2012/13, illustrate just how difficult it can be explain to non-specialists the convoluted make-up of executive directors’ remuneration. The earnings of most directors consist of a mix of fixed and performance-based pay vehicles, and in any one year these can behave differently. And so it is with our latest analysis. Salaries, for example, have edged up over the last year, but total cash, which adds in annual bonus payments, has gone down. Across the FTSE 100 as a whole, directors’ base pay went up by 3.5 per cent at the median during the latest period, while the corresponding total cash movement was minus 0.6 per cent. It was only when the ‘crystallised’ gains from vested long-term incentive plan (LTIP) awards were added into the equation that we found that total earnings growth was boosted back into positive territory.

Indeed, one of the key messages from our latest report is that annual bonus payments have taken a hit over the last year. Between 2010/11 and 2011/12 the median bonus received by our matched group of FTSE 100 directors went down by 4.9 per cent, from £636,315 to £605,000. More broadly, however, the decline in bonuses was not due to the failure of schemes to trigger an award, but rather a fall in the value of the payments received. In the latest year, just six of our matched group of FTSE 100 directors eligible for a bonus did not benefit from an award, while the payouts received by 59.6 per cent were lower than the year before.

In contrast to annual bonus payouts, vested LTIP awards went up compared with the previous year. The median value of the vested LTIPs in 2011/12 was some 80.7 per cent higher than in 2010/11, increasing to £938,888 from £519,625. But it is not just the value of the awards vesting that is higher, as slightly more directors received a payout in the latest year. Some 7 per cent more of our matched group profited from an LTIP payout in 2011/12, while overall a total of 61.5 per cent received an award.

Looking at the whole picture, the main lesson of our latest report is always to get behind the headlines, as the real story of what is happening to directors’ pay is often far more complex than any single figure suggests.