Hero CEOs need to look in the mirror about economic inequality

In a strong rebuke to President Trump’s response to the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, a chorus of masters of the universe, titans of industry, and corporate rock stars lined up like soldiers to take head shots at the president, criticizing him by name for his handling of the violence.

Many were so appalled by what the president did and did not say that they resigned from his business advisory councils. The media certainly milked it for all it was worth, some characterizing senior executives as heroes for speaking truth to power.

Nothing stokes cable ratings like a sustained campaign of outrage that feeds into the attention deficit disorder of the American news cycle. But perhaps some of that outrage should be directed at the crusading corporate giants themselves.

Perhaps it is only a matter of time before chief executive officers show the same passion and anger when it comes to speaking out against the economic inequality that has risen so sharply since the mid-1970s. For example, CEOs could voluntarily take less compensation and use their concentrated political and economic power to support a national living wage.

After all, the Gods of Fortune have continued to smile down upon corporate executives with outsized payoffs. The average CEO earns something close to 300 times the pay of the median American worker, whose real wages have been stagnant for decades. This ratio is up from roughly 40 to 1 in 1980. In contrast to this growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the ratio of CEO to average worker pay in Japan is 16 to 1. In Denmark, it is 48 to 1 and in the United Kingdom 84 to 1.

CEOs do not have to worry about saving for retirement or their children’s college education as they enjoy expensive perquisites from country club membership to second homes a little smaller than Rhode Island, to the personal use of corporate jets.

Is it any wonder that the public is mad as hell? They make the connection between business executive pay and growing economic inequality.

A few decades ago, executives were paid mostly in cash. Much of the story of executive compensation in recent decades comes down to two words: stock options.

To align incentives between shareholders and management, boards of directors use equity compensation by granting stock options. Today, they comprise two thirds of the typical executive’s pay.

Stock options give the executive the right to buy a company’s stock at a predetermined price sometime in the future. If share prices rise above the negotiated strike price, the executive stands to reap significant gains. If the options become worthless, the CEO breaks even, having paid nothing for them.

The result is a win-win for executives, especially when supplemented through the use of stock buy backs and the labyrinthine of accounting shenanigans such as excluding depreciation and amortization in calculating earnings for performance based compensation.

The stock buyback binge of $4 trillion since 2008, much of it with borrowed money thanks to low interest rates since the Great Recession, has resulted in firms reducing the number of outstanding shares by which profits have to be divided. So the share repurchases lift per-share earnings, improving a key metric for determining CEO compensation.

Solutions to the CEO compensation issue include tightening the cap on tax deductibility of CEO pay and disallowing deductions for excess salary, stock options, and perks. Fat chance, these reforms will happen when the positions of too many politicians closely reflect those of their big money donors.

Cynicism about those in positions of power seems to be confirmed afresh each day by the latest tweets, pandering, and headlines. As a general rule, assume the worst about elected officials and the thinly veiled plutocracy. That way you will not be disappointed.

Originally published: September 12, 2017

Print Friendly, PDF & Email