By William Lazonick, Alternet Tuesday, Apr 3, 2012
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.
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 already widely 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 other reaction of corporate boards was to lavish more stock options on their top executives.
The speculation-fueled “irrational exuberance” of the late 1990s brought unprecedented pay bonanzas to top executives, thus establishing a “new normal” for corporate greed. When boom turned to bust in the early 2000s, money-hungry executives had to look for another way to get stock prices up and make their millions. Their favorite “weapon of value extraction” over the past decade has been the stock buyback (aka stock repurchase). Top executives allocate massive sums of corporate cash to repurchasing their company’s own stock with the purpose of boosting their company’s stock price. Stock buybacks and stock options have become the yin and yang of executive compensation.
Meanwhile, these executives will tend to ignore investments in innovation and training. Some companies actually fund their buybacks by laying off workers, offshoring jobs to low-wage countries, and taking on debt. The top executives’ weapon of value extraction becomes a weapon of value destruction. They are rewarded handsomely by not doing their jobs.
From 2003 to 2007, buybacks really took off, and by 2007 the very same 292 corporations now spent over 82 percent of their net income repurchasing their own stock.
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.
tags: executive compensation, declining real wages, income inequality