US CEO Pay has reached epic differential

As reported in The Guardian today, US CEOs now make in pay 339 times the pay of the average worker according to a Bloomberg study of 225 companies. In retail companies, the ratio is 977 to 1 on average. Let that sink in a little.

A quote from the article entitled “‘CEOs don’t want this released’: US study lays bare extreme pay-ratio problem” by Edward Helmore is very revealing:

“According to a recent Bloomberg analysis of 22 major world economies, the average CEO-worker pay gap in the US far outpaces that of other industrialized nations.┬áThe average US CEO makes more than four times his or her counterpart in the other countries analyzed.”

Some people may push back and opine that US CEOs may be worth 4X that of their non-US industrialized nation counterparts. If that were true, it would mean US company performance is 4X that of non-US companies and there would be a huge flight of capital to the US.

In my years as a consultant, I have seen CEO pay ratchet up over time, rewarding CEOs with stock grants and options. What happens is a competitive totem pole exercise, where the competitive pay analyses are upward elastic and downward inelastic (they go up more easily than they go down) over time.

I have also observed the 80/20 rule applies to CEOs as well, with 20% of the CEOs earning their keep. I have worked with egalitarian CEOs, benevolent dictator CEOs and some of the greediest SOBs you will ever meet. Seeing CEOs who realize the teamwork involved in the company making money is admirable. On the converse, seeing CEOs who are imperialistic is off putting. As I write this, I am thinking of the handfuls I worked with and some who were notorious over the years for their greed.

On the bottom end of this exercise are efforts to flatten pay for the average worker. Over time companies will use a variety of rationales and tactics to put lids on pay increases. The salary increase budget may be limited because of the uncertainty in the economy, the company is having some hardship or the company expects to have hardship. Sometimes concurrent with the salary budget, groups of people are laid off. Why is the timing an issue? By moving on lower performers, people whose salary increases would have kept the average percentage increase down are removed from the equation meaning better performers will now get lesser increases.

Coupling this with pressure on not increasing the minimum wage and to diminish the power of labor unions (that is another story), these ratios result. I respect greatly the need for incentives to help reward successful CEOs, but we must not forget who helped them earn those numbers.

We have a poverty problem in this country. We have a middle class where too many are living paycheck to paycheck. Yet, our leaders passed a tax law that benefits CEOs, their companies and the wealthy by a large margin. It would have been nice to have at least obligated the pass through of salary increases or an increase in the minimum wage to a living wage. So, do not expect this ratio to measurably decrease any time soon.