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Originally published June 22, 2013 at 8:00 PM | Page modified July 1, 2013 at 9:53 AM

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CEO, worker pay gap continues to widen

In 2012, the average CEO made 354 times more than the average worker. In 1982, this ratio was 42 to 1, according to the AFL-CIO.

Special to The Seattle Times

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It’s time to stop criticizing the compensation of America’s job creators.

In fact, their pay as a share of gross domestic product has been falling since the 1970s, with the exception of a few years in the 1990s. If they have a job. Adjusted for inflation, most of them have seen nearly flat household incomes for decades.

I’m writing, of course, about the real job creators: Average American citizens who create demand in an economy heavily dependent on consumer spending.

As for chief executives, they’re doing much better. In 2012, the average CEO made 354 times more than the average worker. In 1982, this ratio was 42 to 1. These figures come from the AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch, but it jibes with other studies.

Most advanced countries have much lower ratios. Among them, 67-to-1 in Japan, 147-to-1 in Germany and 206-to-1 in Canada.

The divergence is not new. Very high executive comp is enshrined as an American business practice. Cozy boards, conventional wisdom from business schools and the political power that huge corporations can lever in Washington, D.C., ensure it will probably remain that way.

Occupy Wall Street? Remind me again what that was?

Say on Pay? Those shareholder votes, a reform after the crash, are not binding. Very few companies failed to receive shareholder support in the three years since the measure was implemented. And it’s unclear whether Say on Pay is having a broad affect on compensation. At best, it is a start.

A deeper problem with Say on Pay is that the big institutional investors that control most of the shares are part of the same cultural club as the chief executives and they’re not inclined to stand up for the little guy.

We’ve also been through a bull market where major corporations have amassed record cash and done very well in their share prices. Thus, Boeing shares have flown from $70 to more than $100.

No wonder, then, that Boeing CEO Jim McNerney made 793 times the average worker's pay.

Even so, the financial-research company Obermatt recently compared the compensation of chief executives at publicly traded corporations and performance, finding no correlation between the two.

Lucian Taylor, a professor at Wharton, studied more than 4,500 chief executives. He found that shareholders want to increase a CEO’s compensation if they even think he has contributed to improving profits. But a chief seen as causing declining profits can expect zero effect.

“CEOs are in effect insured against bad news about their abilities,” according to Taylor.

Failure can be a very attractive option. According to a Bloomberg review of proxy data, a dozen executives at companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index would walk away with more than $100 million if they’re fired.

In this environment, most CEOs in the Northwest come off as models of virtue.

Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer made 38 times the average worker’s pay last year. At Columbia Sportswear, Timothy Boyle made 55 times the average worker’s pay. The ratio for President Blake Nordstrom was 113-to-1. At Alaska Air Group, Bradley D. Tilden’s ratio was 164-to-1.

Costco’s Craig Jelinek brought in 139 times the average worker's pay while running an outfit that is a model of fair play and good business.

Costco average hourly pay is around $20.89, while Wal-Mart pays around $12.67 cents on average. Eighty percent of Costco employees have company-sponsored health insurance. At Wal-Mart, according to the company, it’s around half. The rest must rely on Medicaid. In other words, the taxpayers. Not surprisingly, Costco enjoys less turnover and more worker loyalty, translating into superior sales.

There were a few exceptions. For example, Mark Parker, of Nike, took home 1,016 times the average worker’s pay, while the ratio for Starbucks’ Howard Schultz was 834-to-1.

The most interesting development came in Switzerland. This spring, voters enacted the world’s most severe executive-compensation limits. Shareholders get a binding say on pay and companies are forbidden to give bonuses to executives joining or leaving the firm. If the company is taken over, the CEO gets no bonus. Violators face up to three years in prison and fines that could equal six years of salary.

The Swiss move came after entrepreneur Thomas Minder took up shareholder rights and skewed compensation incentives after the 2001 management-driven collapse of Swissair. It is being talked about in other European Union countries.

Bosses of U.S. public companies are safe. In addition to clubby boards, political power and favorable tax policy, they are protected by what shareholder activist Robert A.G. Monks calls “drone corporations.” In other words, their ownership is so diffuse that top executives are not held accountable.

Also, the cult of the irreplaceable chief executive continues to hold sway, even if most CEOs aren’t Steve Jobs. And even Jobs made the decision to send manufacturing of Apple’s products offshore, lethally wounding scalable high-tech manufacturing in America.

It was profitable in the short-term, but, like many other such decisions, it is having terrible long-term consequences for the U.S. economy and workers.

But a social rate of return is not among the things counted when it comes time to reward the leaders of corporate America.

This wouldn’t sting as much if America hadn’t become one of the world’s most unequal societies. If our economic mobility had not slowed to a crawl and is trailing most advanced nations. If we weren’t being told that “entitlements” must be cut because we’re “broke.”

Some entitlements are more sacred than others.

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com

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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
jtalton@seattletimes.com

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