Corporate Cronyism: The Secret to Overpaid CEOs

It's hardly a secret that the heads of major corporations in the United States get mind-bending paychecks. High pay may be understandable when a top executive turns around a failing company or vastly expands a company's revenue and profit, but CEOs can get paychecks in the tens or hundreds of millions even when they did nothing especially notable.

For example, Lee Raymond retired from Exxon-Mobil in 2005 with $321 million. (That's 22,140 minimum wage work years.) His main accomplishment for the company was sitting at its head at a time when a quadrupling of oil prices sent profits soaring. Hank McKinnel walked away from Pfizer in 2006 with $166 million. It would be hard to identify his outstanding accomplishments.

But you don't have to be mediocre to get a big paycheck as a CEO. Bob Nardelli pocketed $240 million when he left Home Depot after six years. The company's stock price had fallen by 40 percent in his tenure, while the stock its competitor Lowe's had nearly doubled.

And then we have the CEOs in the financial industry, heads of huge banks like Lehman's, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch, or the insurer AIG. These CEOs took their companies to the edge of bankruptcy or beyond and still walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in their pockets.

It's not hard to write contracts that would ensure that CEO pay bears a closer relationship to the company's performance. For example, if the value of Raymond's stock incentives at Exxon were tied to the performance of the stock of other oil companies (this can be done) then his going away package probably would not have been one-tenth as large. Also, there can be longer assessment periods so that it's not possible to get rich by bankrupting a company.

If anyone were putting a check on CEO pay, these sorts of practices would be standard, but they aren't for a simple reason. The corporate directors who are supposed to be holding down CEO pay for the benefit of the shareholders are generally buddies of the CEOs.

Corporate CEOs often have considerable input into who sits on their boards. (Some CEOs sit on the boards themselves.) They pick people who will be agreeable and not ask tough questions.

For example, corporate boards probably don't often ask whether they could get a comparably skilled CEO for lower pay, even though top executives of major companies in Europe, Japan, and South Korea earn around one-tenth as much as CEOs in the United States. Of course this is the directors' job. They are supposed to be trying to minimize what the company pays their top executives in the same way that companies try to cut costs by outsourcing production to Mexico, China, and elsewhere.

But friends don't try to save money by cutting their friends' pay. And when the directors themselves are pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for attending 4-10 meetings, there is little incentive to take their jobs seriously.

Instead we see accomplished people from politics, academia, and other sectors collecting their pay and looking the other way. For example, we have people like Erskine Bowles who had the distinction of sitting on the boards of both Morgan Stanley and General Motors in the years they were bailed out by the government. And we have Martin Feldstein, the country's most prominent conservative economist, who sat on the board of insurance giant AIG when it nearly tanked the world's financial system. Both Bowles and Feldstein were well-compensated for their "work."

Excessive CEO pay matters not only because it takes away money that rightfully belongs to shareholders, which include pension funds and individuals with 401(k) retirement accounts. Excessive CEO pay is important because it sets a pattern for pay packages throughout the economy. When mediocre CEOs of mid-size companies can earn millions or tens of millions a year, it puts upward pressure on the pay of top executives in other sectors.

It is common for top executives of universities and private charities to earn salaries in the millions of dollars because they can point to executives of comparably sized companies who earn several times as much. Those close in line to the boss also can expect comparably bloated salaries. In other words, this is an important part of the story of inequality in the economy.

To try to impose the checks that don't currently exist, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) has created Director Watch. This site will highlight directors like Erskine Bowles and Martin Feldstein who stuff their pockets while not performing their jobs.

CEPR also worked with The Huffington Post to compile a data set that lists the directors for the Fortune 100 companies, along with their compensation, the CEOs' compensation, and the companies' stock performance. This data set is now available at the Huffington Post as Pay Pals.

Perhaps a little public attention will get these directors to actually work for their hefty paychecks. The end result could be to bring a lot of paychecks for those at the top back down to earth.


This has been reposted from The Huffington Post.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From CEPR Co-Director Dean Baker