How High CEO Pay Hurts the 99 Percent
Corporations are not working for the 99 percent. But this wasn’t always the case. In a special five-part series, William Lazonick, professor at UMass, president of the Academic-Industry Research Network, and a leading expert on the business corporation, along with journalist Ken Jacobson and AlterNet’s Lynn Parramore, will examine the foundations, history and purpose of the corporation to answer this vital question: How can the public take control of the business corporation and make it work for the real economy?
While most Americans struggle to make ends meet, the CEOs of major U.S. business corporations are pulling eight-figure, and sometimes even nine-figure, compensation packages. When they win, the 99 percent lose. We rely on these executives to allocate corporate resources to investments in new products and processes that, in a world of global competition, can provide us with good jobs. Yet the ways in which we permit top corporate executives to be paid actually gives them a strong disincentive to invest in innovation and training. The proper function of the executive is to figure out how to develop and use the corporation’s productive capabilities (business schools call it “competitive strategy”). But that's not happening.
In effect, U.S. top executives rake in obscene sums by not doing their jobs.
The Runaway Compensation Train
When all the data from corporate proxy statements are in within the next month or so, they will show that 2011 was another banner year for top executive pay.
Over the previous three years the average annual compensation of the top 500 executives named on corporate proxy statements was “only” $17.8 million, compared with an annual average of $27.3 million for 2005 through 2007. Yet even in these recent “down” years, the compensation of these named top executives was more than double in real terms their counterparts’ pay in the years 1992 through 1994.
It might surprise you to learn that in the early 1990s, executive pay was alreadywidely viewed as out of line with what average workers got paid. In 1991 Graef Crystal, a prominent executive pay consultant, published a best-selling book, In Search of Excess: The Overcompensation of American Executives, in which he calculated that over the course of the 1970s and '80s, the real after-tax earnings of the average manufacturing worker had declined by about 13 percent. During the same period, that of the average CEO of a major US corporation had quadrupled! Bill Clinton took up the issue in his 1992 presidential campaign, and immediately upon taking office had Congress pass a law that forbade companies from recording as tax-deductible expenses executive salaries plus bonuses in excess of $1 million.
Unfortunately Clinton chose the wrong pay target. In 1992 salaries and bonuses represented only 23 percent of the total compensation of the top 500 executives named on proxy statements. The largest single component of executive compensation was gains from exercising stock options, representing 59 percent of the total. The Clinton administration left this so-called “performance pay” unregulated.
Perversely, one reaction of corporate boards to the Clinton legislation was to take $1 million in salary plus bonus as the “government-approved minimum wage” for top executives, and therefore to raise these components of executive pay if they fell short of that minimum. The number of named executives with salaries plus bonuses that totaled $1 million or more increased from 529 in 1992 to 703 in 1993 and 922 in 1994.
The other reaction of corporate boards was to lavish more stock options on their top executives. When the stock market boomed in the late 1990s, these executives cashed in. The average annual compensation of the top 500 named executives reached $21 million in 1999 with gains from exercising stock options representing 71 percent of the total, and $32 million in 2000 with option gains now 80 percent of the total.