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How High CEO Pay Hurts the 99 Percent

Why are top executives making outrageous amounts of money for not doing their jobs? It's time to fight back -- because they work for us.

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The financial crisis and the Great Recession forced a slowdown in buybacks. S&P 500 companies repurchased a record $609 billion in 2007 but pared it down to $360 billion in 2008 and $146 billion in 2009. They stepped it back up to about $289 billion in 2010 and an estimated $440 billion in 2011. It is quite possible that buybacks in 2012 will be even higher than in the previous record year of 2007. And look for executive pay to increase as well.

Concentration of Income at the Top

Make no mistake about it. Executive pay is a prime reason why in 2005-2008 the top 0.1 percent captured a record 11.4 percent of all household income (including capital gains) in the U.S., compared with 2.6 percent three decades earlier. In 2010 (the latest Internal Revenue Service data available), this number was 9.5 percent. The income threshold among taxpayers for being included in the 0.1 percent in 2010 was $1,492,175. Of the executives named in proxy statements in 2010, 4,743 had total compensation greater than this threshold amount, with a mean income of $5,034,000 and gains from exercising stock options representing 26 percent of their combined compensation.

Total corporate compensation of the named executives does not include other non-compensation income (from securities, property, fees for sitting on corporate boards, etc.) that would be included in their IRS tax returns. If we assume that named executives whose corporate compensation was below the $1.5 million threshold were able to augment that income by 25 percent from other sources, then the number of named executives in the top 0.1 percent in 2010 would have been 5,555.

Included in the top 0.1 percent of the US income distribution were a large, but unknown, number of US corporate executives whose pay was above the $1.5 million threshold but who were not named in proxy statements because they were neither the CEO nor the four other highest paid in their particular companies. To take just one example, of the five named IBM executives in 2010, the lowest paid had total compensation of $6,637,910. There were presumably large numbers of other IBM executives whose total compensation was between this amount and the $1.5 million top 0.1 percent threshold.

Let’s Put CEOs to Work for Us

Under the Obama administration, virtually nothing has been done to constrain top executive pay. President Obama signaled his unwillingness to take on the issue when, in an interview in February 2010, he was asked about the many millions paid in 2009 to Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan and Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, in the wake of the financial meltdown and bank bailouts. "I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen,” the president said. “I, like most of the American people, don't begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system."

The “ Say-on-Pay” provision in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act sounds good, but it just reinforces a system of incentives the does not work. This provision gives public shareholders the right to express their non-binding opinion to corporate management on issues related to executive compensation. If Congress had understood what drives executive pay in the U.S., however, it would have recognized that the granting of Say-on-Pay rights to public shareholders is part of the problem, not the solution. Through a combination of stock options and stock buybacks, Say-on-Pay provisions reinforce an alignment between the incentives of top executives and the interests of public shareholders that has been undermining investment in America’s future.

 
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