With poor corporate performance becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate, chief executives the world over are feeling the pressure.

CEO firings increased by more than 70% last year compared with 2001, even though the total number of CEO changes rose by just 10%, according to a recent study by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

Booz Allen, which examined chief executive turnover at the world's 2,500 largest publicly traded companies, said that of all global CEO departures in 2002, 39% were forced changes based on performance compared to 25% in 2001.

"Business leaders are enduring scrutiny and pressure unseen since the Great Depression," said Charles Lucier, senior vice president emeritus of Booz Allen. "The CEO mystique has all but evaporated, and director activism has replaced crony capitalism in the boardroom."

CEOs who were dismissed in 2002 generated median regionally adjusted shareholder returns that were 6.2 percentage points lower than CEOs who retired voluntarily, the firm's study showed. In the prior year, CEOs that had been fired underperformed retiring chiefs by 11.9%. It took an average 13.5% shortfall in 2000 to prompt a firing. The study found that CEOs appointed from outside the company were also more likely to be dismissed than insiders.

"There is no longer any safe haven for chief executives who can't deliver superior results," Lucier said.

Somewhat surprisingly, Lucier's study found that CEOs are being replaced at a faster rate in Asia and Europe than in North America, where most of the recent corporate governance scandals originated. In Asia, involuntary departures accounted for nearly half of all CEO turnover last year, up from just 6% in 2001. "This phenomenon is now fully global, even in regions not burdened by governance scandals," said Lucier.

In 2002, the industries that saw the highest rates of CEO turnover were utilities, telecommunications services, materials and energy. More firings also occurred in the telecom services sector followed by utilities, materials and information technology. Financial services has been the safest industry for CEOs over the past 7 years, with the lowest turnover rate and the fewest firings, the study showed.