In this down market, it isn't just investors paying the price. Chief executives are resigning in greater numbers. According to consulting firm...

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In this down market, it isn’t just investors paying the price. Chief executives are resigning in greater numbers.

According to consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, 370 CEOs of public and private companies announced departures in the first quarter, a 7 percent increase over the same period last year.

Of 118 CEO resignations, many were probably “less than voluntary,” Challenger says.

Some CEOs of public companies are choosing to resign before they are forced out.

“Down markets are always times when we see a lot of CEO departures, because it does shine a spotlight” on performance, says Patrick McGurn, special counsel with RiskMetrics Group.

Credit-market troubles have spurred departures, including those of insurer MBIA’s (MBI) Gary Dunton and State Street’s (SST) William Hunt, according to Challenger.

Investor activism has led to shake-ups in recent years. From 1995 to 2006, annual CEO turnover rose 59 percent, according to a report from Booz Allen Hamilton.

But activists often focus on short-term gains, prompting some CEOs to favor dividend increases and share buybacks over long-term growth strategies, notes Shirley Westcott, managing director of policy at Proxy Governance Inc.

“Golden hello” packages when a CEO signs on, or “golden parachutes” when one leaves can also be costly, notes Corporate Library analyst Alexandra Higgins, especially welcome packages that aren’t linked to performance.