The Economics of Corporate Executive Pay
Publication Date: March 2007
Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service
In the past ten years, the pay of chief executive officers (CEOs) has more than doubled, and the ratio of median CEO to worker pay has risen to 179 to 1. High and rising executive pay could be an issue of public concern on two different grounds. First, it is contributing to widening income inequality that may be of concern from an equity perspective. Second, it could be the result of economically inefficient labor markets. It is difficult to determine whether executive pay is excessive across the board since executives' marginal product cannot be directly observed. An upward trend in pay over time is not sufficient proof that the market is not efficient since factors determining supply and demand, such as the skills required of the position, can change over time. To show that pay is excessive from an economic perspective, one must first demonstrate that there is a market failure that is preventing the market from functioning efficiently. The market failure could originate in the division in large modern firms between management and ownership, which is typically dispersed among millions of shareholders. Shareholders' interests are represented by a board of directors. Critics of executive pay have argued that boards have all too often been "captured" by the executive and are no longer negotiating pay packages that are in the shareholders' best interests. They point to a number of common practices that they call "stealth compensation" which are inconsistent with arm's length contracting. These include "golden parachutes," generous severance packages, company-provided perks, and bonuses that are unrelated to firm performance.
Stock options have been the fastest growing portion of executive pay since the 1990s, and critics believe this pattern can also be explained through the prism of stealth compensation. Rewarding executives with employee stock options was often justified in terms of the "pay for performance" mantra, but options are usually designed to reward absolute, not relative, performance. This means that in the bull market of the 1990s, when virtually all stock prices were rising, a company could fall behind its competitors and its executives could still receive handsome options payouts. Indeed, a sizeable portion of the increase in executive pay in the 1990s was likely due to options that turned out to be much more valuable than expected because of the unprecedented price increases of the bull market.
Many of the recent corporate scandals appear consistent with stealth compensation as well. Stock options backdating, earnings manipulation, and accounting fraud might have been motivated by attempts to covertly increase executive pay. If short-term fluctuations in the stock price are not good proxies of firm performance, then tying compensation to the stock price can create incentives for executives to engage in activities that are detrimental to shareholders.
Policy proposals mostly focus on improving transparency, increasing board independence, and strengthening shareholder control rather than attempting to curb pay directly. H.R. 1257 would give shareholders a nonbinding vote on executive pay. Another proposal would modify the limit on deductibility of executive pay from corporate taxation. More broadly, income inequality could be reduced by increasing the progressivity of the tax system. For current developments and legislation, see CRS Report RS22604, Excessive CEO Pay: Background and Policy Approaches.