People don't get it on CEO pay

Recently I debated executive pay on Twitter with the FT's Kadhim Shubber, The Times's Daniel Finkelstein and others. I had written a letter to The Times arguing that according to a preponderance of evidence, CEOs are actually worth their huge salaries. Indeed, they probably create, and sometimes destroy, firm value worth orders of magnitude more than they are paid.

I used the example of Thomas Cook boss Harriet Green, whose £3m salary was dwarfed by the £400m wiped off the market capitalisation of her firm when she left. Shubber argued she was a bad example, because her departure was accompanied by worse forecasts that also hurt the firm. This is probably fair—perhaps the portion of the loss down to Green herself was small enough that she really wasn't worth it, though I doubt it.

But Shubber went on to argue that it was bad in general to use share price movements as evidence of executive performance, because departures are associated with uncertainty. It is true that investors are likely to value firms lower if the variance of their expected returns—the spread of possible profits and losses—is higher, even if the average returns expected are the same. This is rational given risk averse preferences. But there are a few reasons why this probably isn't the only, or even the main, factor driving the equity movements we see when bosses move.

Firstly, it has a hard time accounting for cases when shock CEO deaths or departures raise the stock price. When poor Steve Ballmer announced his resignation as Microsoft chief the company instantly got around 7.5%—or billions of dollars—more valuable. The stock price rose 39% in the year following. Sometimes executives are having a huge impact, but a negative one. Despite the uncertainty, markets rise.

Secondly, it's not just the stock price that reacts. When there is a shock death of a CEO, or even of a member of a CEO's family, this hurts profitability, investment and sales growth, particularly if the boss is relatively long-tenured, or if the family death is their spouse or child (not so much if it's their mother-in-law).

Thirdly, it's not just death or departure that hurts or improves prices. CEO hospitalisation dramatically hurts firm outcomes, particularly if the executive is young, highly educated, and if the firm is in a rapidly growing business environment—exactly when CEO influence would be expected to matter the most. Similarly, when the boss has more invested in the firm, or when they are measured as putting in more effort, the firm does much, much better. And when firm control is "inherited"—when CEOs dictate the choice of successor to a relative or friend, firms do substantially worse. All of this points to CEOs mattering a lot.

If this is all true, Shubber asks, then why has CEO pay risen so much over past decades. For a while, we only had hypotheses, suggesting that firms were growing ever larger in size, wider in scope, and more complex and globalised in organisation, making the decisions at the top ever more important. But a recent swathe of papers seem to confirm our intuitions and guesses: 1. CEO deaths, always a cost to firms, have become ever more costly recently; 2. bigger firms have always had more expensive CEOs; merely applying this relationship to the growth in firm size 1980-2003 is enough to explain the average pay rise for bosses.

Boards may use rules of thumb to decide on executive pay, but the reason these rules (and the firms using them) survive, is because they are adaptive for firms; they are good ways of setting pay. Small differences at the top end of talent make large differences for firm bottom lines, especially nowadays. Firms lose a lot when their star performers go, and when they don't bid for the best possible boss. People just don't get it: CEOs really matter!

The return of class origin to the BBC

We did rather think that Britain had got over this sort of nonsense these days. It's no longer necessary to have an accent that makes the Queen sound positively estuarine in order to get onto the radio these days for example. And yet we seem to be getting back this idea that class origin should be the (or at least a) determinant of who reads the footie scores out to us:

BBC staff will be asked to disclose details of their family income and upbringing, as part of new plans to ensure that the corporation is not dominated by the middle classes.

The BBC will announce today that all new employees will be asked to answer a range of questions about their socio-economic background, including whether they were entitled to free school meals as a child, which the broadcaster says will allow it work out whether its workforce reflects modern Britain.

It's most certainly different from Reith's initial conception of what the BBC was to be for, which was rather to teach everyone to be middle class. But that's not the only historical echo we hear: half of Europe was ruled for generations on the basis that class origin determined near all. A background in the bourgeoisie condemned one, decent proletarian roots promoted though the ranks of the society. It has to be said that the experiment didn't work out well. So we're rather puzzled as to why people are so keen to repeat the error.

We would propose something perhaps a little to novel for most tastes. Hiring and firing of staff based upon their competence. If someone, yes, even a white upper class elderly male, turns out to be good at interviewing people sitting on sofas then hire them and a sofa. If there's a QQ (as we understand the acronyms these days, "queer, questioning" is a possible combination) who's a dab hand at sorting out radio interference then hire them if radio interference is the problem to be solved. Class, gender, sexuality, race and yes, class origins, just aren't to us the correct criteria to be hiring people upon.

And if the BBC really is concerned about diversity then perhaps they might like to pay attention to the only sort that does actually matter, intellectual diversity? A few more people who think a little further out of the usual soft left establishment box perhaps? 

We do wonder about MPs at times you know

We do wonder about MPs at times you know

Well, everyone wonders about MPs at times. Where do they find them? How on earth does anyone end up voting for them? You know, the basic questions that anyone would ask when actually confronted with a few specimens of the beast. And then there are those specific specimens that really puzzle us. To take this from Siobhan McDonagh MP. She tweeted out the letter she had sent to Azzurri, the owners of the Zizzi chain of restaurants.

Happy birthday, TMS

Today, the Scottish thinker Adam Smith (1723-1790) is best known for his pioneering work of economics, The Wealth of Nations (1776). But the book that actually propelled him to fame was The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published on this day in 1759.

Moralists had been struggling to work out the principles that made some actions morally good and others morally bad. To churchmen, the answer was obvious: it was the word of God. Skeptics speculated about whether we had a sixth sense, a ‘moral sense’ that would guide us towards good.

Smith’s breakthrough was to identify our moral judgements as a matter of human beings’ deep psychology as social creatures. Human beings, he argued, have a natural ‘sympathy’ (today we would say ‘empathy’) for others. That enables them to understand how to moderate their behaviour and preserve harmony. It is the basis of moral judgements about behaviour, and the source of human virtue.

Writing exactly a century before Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), Smith was not sure why such social behaviour should prevail. He put it down to providence: today we would put it down to evolution. 

The book was an intellectual sensation. Churchmen, of course, did not like it very much, but it caught the eye of Charles Townsend, an intellectual and senior member of the British government, who was highly impressed and sought an introduction to Smith through their mutual friend, the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). Townsend immediately hired Smith, on a salary of £300 a year for life, to be tutor to his stepson, the young Duke of Buccleuch. It was a fortune – and it gave Smith the independence and experience to start writing the work for which he is remembered today, The Wealth of Nations.

Owen Paterson's Brilliant Brexit Patter

Former UK cabinet minister Owen Paterson has just delivered the most intelligent case for the UK leaving the European Union that I have ever heard. His basic point is that the EU is not the ‘status quo’ but something that is rapidly moving to destinations that are uncertain and dangerous, particularly for the UK; and that being outside is the safer, more stable option.

Take the eurozone. It is rapidly becoming one country, says Paterson. In order to deal with the imbalances that the fixed currency has only exacerbated, it needs to centralise decision making on budgets and bailouts. Plans for this are well advanced, eurozone sovereignty is being pooled, members’ discretion over their own budgets is being curbed and the eurozone will in effect be its own political union by 2025 – just nine years away. That is a very different kind of EU that is being envisaged, and not one that strikes a chord in the UK.

The UK government says that the UK will have ‘special status’ outside this and the other centralising tendencies. But how? There is no binding agreement that grants the UK any special status: the only sort of special status around seems to be a Norway-style outer circle. Not in the euro, not at the core, out on the fringes – it is clear that the UK’s influence could only diminish. The UK would still be outvoted, still overruled by the ECJ, still expected to chip in to eurozone bail-outs (as it was with Greece), but even less able to do anything about it.

Then there are security issues, with five new countries, 87m new potential EU citizens, waiting to join. Such as Turkey, with its leaky 700-mile border abutting a war zone. Once migrants make it to Germany or the other countries that are supposed to share them out, before long they become EU citizens and able to travel and work in their destination of choice – the UK. And we have no say in it. Migration, as ASI has shown, is generally beneficial: but far more so if it happens at a manageable rate.

Paterson’s vision for a UK outside these uncertainties is one of a self-governing, free-trading nation, a true part of the global family, its international trade and participation no longer absorbed into the EU. And as for trade deals, the EU is far weaker than the UK would be alone, each member having its own interests to throw into the horse-dealing, and proceeding only as fast as the slowest and most intransigent. The UK could do deals with China, India – and indeed the US, far quicker. It would also have greater representation on trade and other international bodies such as the WTO, where currently it is represented by the EU.

Leaving the EU is not an instant commitment, but a process. There would – and certainly should – be a long process of discussion before the formal commitment to withdraw (and the two-year i-dotting period that follows it) is given. In the meantime, the UK would continue to trade with the EU – something that 5m EU jobs, and EU supply chains, depend on. But meanwhile, we could be opening up better relations with the rest of the world.

There is no status quo. If the UK remains in the EU, it will be a second-class citizen, and the EU’s political centralization will continue, dragging the UK along with it. The eurozone, politically integrated by 2025, will dominate the rest. Outside, the UK could at least control its borders, its budget, its national debt, its public services, its international trade. What’s not to like?

Perhaps the 1% improve poor peoples' health?

Perhaps the 1% improve poor peoples' health?

A rather interesting little finding from over The Pond concerning the connection between inequality and the health of the population. Over here we've had Michael Marmot insisting for decades that health inequality is to be explained by economic inequality. And Wilkinson and Pickett have been shouting that they are not just connected by economic inequality is the direct cause of ill health for all. At which point we get the American study into health and inequality and we find something a little different:

This morning's Guardian produces a bit of a giggle

This morning's Guardian produces a bit of a giggle

That's our first reaction, at least, to this story that a Welsh billionaire is willing to invest some of his own money in a rescue of the Port Talbot steel assets. The giggle coming from, no, not the idea that there is a Welsh billionaire, the thought that, well, yes, that's what we rather expect from people when they buy something. They use their money to buy the thing that they're buying. Seems a reasonable and logical idea to us but it's obviously caught The Guardian by surprise: