Back in 1999, near the dizzying height of the dot.com boom, no executive in Corporate America personified the soaring pay packages of America’s CEOs more than Jack Welch, the chief exec at General Electric. Welch took home $75 million that year.
What explained the enormity of that compensation? Welch didn’t claim any genius on his part. He credited his success, instead, to the genius of the free market.
“Is my salary too high?” mused Welch. “Somebody else will have to decide that, but this is a competitive marketplace.”
Translation: “I deserve every penny. The market says so.”
Top U.S. corporate execs today, on average, are doing even better than top execs in Welch’s heyday. In 1999, notes a just-released new report from the Economic Policy Institute, CEOs at the nation’s 350 biggest corporations pocketed 248 times the pay of average workers in their industries. Top execs last year averaged 312 times more.
What explains this growing generosity to America’s top corporate chiefs? Today’s apologists for over-the-top CEO compensation, like Jack Welch a generation ago, point to the market.
One leading critic of these apologists, the Dutch management scientist Manfred Kets de Vries, neatly summed up this market worldview earlier this year: Big CEO pay packages “reflect market demands for a CEO’s unique skills and contribution to the bottom line.” Mega-million executive paychecks “merely represent the market forces of supply and demand.”
Or, as the University of Chicago’s Steven Kaplan puts it, “The market for talent puts pressure on boards to reward their top people at competitive pay levels in order to both attract and retain them.”
In the world that CEO cheerleaders like Kaplan inhabit, impartial, unbiased markets determine executive compensation. Corporate boards simply play by market rules. They pay their execs what the market says their execs deserve. If they don’t, they risk losing their executive talent.
American corporate leaders take scarcity — of CEO talent — as a given. How else, in a market economy, to explain rapidly rising CEO pay? If quality CEOs abounded, executive compensation would not be soaring. But that compensation is soaring, so qualified CEOs obviously must be few and far between — and totally deserving of whatever many millions they receive. Simple market logic.
And simply wrong. American corporations today confront no scarcity of executive talent. The numbers of people qualified to run multi-billion-dollar companies have never, in reality, been more plentiful. These numbers have been growing steadily over recent decades, in part because America’s graduate schools of business have been graduating, year after year, thousands of rigorously trained executives.
America’s first graduate school for executives, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, currently boasts an alumni network over 10,000 strong. MBAs in the equally prestigious Harvard Business School alumni network total over 46,000. Add in the alumni from other widely acclaimed institutions and the available supply of executives trained at America’s top-notch business schools approaches several hundred thousand.
Just how many of these academically trained executives have the skills and experience really needed to run a Fortune 500 company? Let’s assume, conservatively, that only 1 percent of the alumni from the “best” business schools have enough skills and experience to run a big-time corporation.
That arithmetic would give Fortune 500 companies that go looking for a new CEO at least several thousand eminently qualified candidates. No supply shortage here.
Indeed, today’s business world is overflowing with eminently qualified CEO candidates, once you add in the grads from business schools abroad. INSEAD, perhaps the most prominent of these international schools, now has over 56,000 active alumni.
In the past, to be sure, American corporations seldom looked beyond the borders of the United States for executive talent. That tunnel vision made some sense. Executives inside the United States and executives outside worked in different business environments. Foreign executives could hardly be expected to succeed in an unfamiliar American marketplace, even if they did speak flawless English.
But today, in our celebrated “globalized” economy, that distinction between domestic and foreign executives no longer matters nearly as much. In dozens of foreign nations, in hundreds of foreign corporations, executives are competing in the same global marketplace as their American counterparts. They’re using the same technologies, studying the same market data, and strategizing toward the same business goals. Together, taken as a group, executives from elsewhere in the world constitute a huge new pool of talent for American corporations.
Pay consultants in the United States, for their part, do acknowledge the reality of this global marketplace for executive talent. In fact, they cite global competition as one important reason why executive pay in the United States is rising. American companies, the argument goes, now have to compete against foreign companies for executive talent, the argument goes. This competition is forcing up executive pay in the United States.
Really? What ever happened to market logic? If corporations all around the world paid their executives at comparable rates, market competition would certainly force up executive compensation worldwide. But corporations don’t all pay executives at comparable rates.
American executives take home far more compensation than their foreign counterparts, on average over triple the pay of execs in America’s peer nations. By classic market logic, any competition between highly paid American executives and equally qualified but more modestly paid international executives ought to end up lowering, not raising, the higher pay rates in the United States.
Why, after all, would an American corporation pay $50 million for an American CEO when a skilled international CEO could easily be had for one-fifth or even one-fiftieth that price?
We have here, in short, a situation that a deep, abiding faith in the “market” does not explain. In the executive talent marketplace, American corporations face plenty, not scarcity, yet the going rate for American executives keeps rising.
Has someone repealed the laws of supply and demand? How else could executive pay in the United States have ascended to such lofty levels?
Some analysts do have an alternate explanation to offer. Markets, they point out, still operate by supply and demand. But markets don’t set executive pay.
“CEOs who cheerlead for market forces wouldn’t think of having them actually applied to their own pay packages,” as commentator Matthew Miller has noted in the Los Angeles Times. “The reality is that CEO pay is set through a clubby, rigged system in which CEOs, their buddies on board compensation committees and a small cadre of lawyers and ‘compensation consultants’ are in cahoots to keep the millions coming.”
“CEO compensation,” agree Lawrence Michel and Jessica Schieder, the authors of the new Economic Policy Institute executive pay report, “appears to reflect not greater productivity of executives but the power of CEOs to extract concessions.”
If CEOs earned less, the pair add, we would see “no adverse impact on output or employment.” Instead, they go on, lower executive paychecks would mean higher rewards for corporate workers, since the huge paydays that go to CEOs today reflect “income that otherwise would have accrued to others.”
How could those “others,” the rest of us, best go about lowering CEO compensation? Michel and Schieder offer a variety of promising proposals, ranging from higher marginal income tax rates to higher corporate tax rates on companies with excessively wide CEO-to-worker compensation ratios.
And what might a reasonable CEO-to-worker pay ratio be? The new Economic Policy Institute research suggests one plausible goal. Back in 1965, Michel and Schieder calculate, America’s top execs only pulled down 20 times more pay than the nation’s average workers.