Most analysts of the high-finance meltdown that ushered in the Great Recession have concluded that excessive compensation was a key causal factor. Outrageously high rewards gave executives an incentive to behave outrageously, to take the sorts of reckless risks that would eventually endanger our entire economy. Our nation’s leading political players have sought, sometimes with grand fanfare, to confront this reality. The financial reform package enacted this July, for instance, codifies several long-term goals of executive pay reformers, most notably a “say on pay” provision that hands shareholders the right to take nonbinding advisory votes on executive compensation.
This reform could become a valuable tool for shareholder activists, particularly if such votes are required on an annual basis. However, there is little evidence that “say on pay” has had an impact on overall compensation levels in nations where it has already been in practice.
To bring executive pay back down to mid-20th century levels, we need reforms that cut to the quick, which recognize the dangers banks and major corporations create when they dangle oversized rewards for executive “performance.” Some reforms that would move us in this direction are now pending in Congress.
One of the most promising would eliminate a perverse incentive for excessive pay in our tax code. Under current rules, there are no meaningful limits on how much a firm can deduct for the expense of executive comp. Thus, the more a firm pays its CEO, the more that firm can deduct from its taxes. The rest of us bear the brunt of this loophole, either through increased taxes needed to fill the revenue gaps or through cutbacks in public spending.
The Income Equity Act, introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), would deny all firms tax deductions on any executive pay (including stock options) that runs over 25 times the pay of a firm’s lowest-paid employee or $500,000, whichever is higher.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the 2010 health care reform bill set important precedents for this reform by applying $500,000 deductibility caps on pay for bailout recipients and health insurance firms. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said he would consider extending the tax deductibility cap in TARP to U.S. companies generally.
Another practical proposal would use the power of the public purse to encourage more rational pay levels. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illin.) has introduced the Patriot Corporations Act to extend tax breaks and federal contracting preferences to companies that meet benchmarks for good corporate behavior. Among the benchmarks: not compensating any executive at more than 100 times the income of the company’s lowest-paid worker.
By law, the U.S. government denies contracts to companies that discriminate in their employment practices, by race or gender. This reflects clear public policy that our tax dollars should not subsidize racial or gender inequality. In a similar way, this reform would discourage extreme economic inequality.
Congress should also revisit the proposal that passed the Senate last year which would’ve capped total pay for employees of bailout companies at no more than $400,000, the salary of the U.S. President. Such a restriction could be enacted today for application in the event of future bailouts. Given a clear warning about the consequences for their own paychecks, executives might think twice about taking actions that endanger their future – and ours.
Congress should not shy away from bolder action on executive pay. Lawmakers mandate limits on other types of corporate behavior all the time. They limit how much pollution corporations can spew out. They limit the chemicals companies can sneak into their products. They limit the hours they can force employees to labor. They set these limits because they recognize that irresponsible corporate behaviors threaten our communities.
Excessive executive pay, the Wall Street meltdown has demonstrated ever so vividly, endangers our public well-being as surely as any other pollutants.
Sarah Anderson is a co-author of the new Institute for Policy Studies report, Executive Excess 2010: CEO Pay and the Great Recession. (this link will go live on Sept. 1)