Seven reasons not to care about high pay

  1. Executives can be worth a lot to firms. When bad CEOs are sacked or new CEOs who are expected to be good are hired, the firm they work for can become a lot more valuable. Apple lost 5% of its value after Steve Jobs died, about $17.5bn. Microsoft became 8% more valuable after Steve Balmer resigned in 2013 – he represented more than $20bn worth of losses to Microsoft. Angela Ahrendts's departure from Burberry in 2013 wiped £536m off the firm’s value; Tesco became £220m more valuable when its CEO merely announced that he would take an active role in managing the firm. Why? Because CEOs make really important decisions that can make or break the firm.
  2. Critics of high pay can’t say how much they think CEOs should be paid. The High Pay Centre says it thinks CEOs are paid too much, but how much would be the right amount? They don’t say, and don’t suggest any real way of knowing. They emphasise multiples of employee pay on their website, but there’s no reason at all to think that would be a good way of judging how much a CEO is worth to the firm, and doesn’t even make sense across firms – is the CEO of a giant firm with a low average wage, like McDonald’s or Tesco, less important than the CEO of a relatively small firm with a high average wage, like QinetiQ?
  3. CEOs might be much more important now than they were in the 1960s. The most interesting question about executive pay is: why has it risen so much since the 1960s compared to median worker pay? There are a couple of different reasons this might be. One, as Scott Sumner suggests, is that CEOs actually are much more important now than they were (so being a good one is more valuable to a firm). Executives’ decisions probably mattered less when the world was less globalized and markets were less diverse – you knew what sorts of appliances and groceries consumers wanted, and your job was to manage capital competently to produce them. Now, even big firms face rapid destruction if they make the wrong call about what sort of products are going to popular in a few year’s time. As Sumner says, “Think how much Sony would have benefited in the past 10 years if it had had the Samsung management team”.
  4. …But tax and regulation probably plays a role too. Economist Kevin Murphy argues that history of executive pay (particularly in the United States) is only understandable in the context of tax and regulatory changes, like penalties on golden parachutes, a rise in stock option grants caused by changes to tax and accounting rules, and “changes to holding and listing requirements that favored stock options over other forms of incentive compensation”. (NB: This doesn’t mean that these rules are bad or undesireable, but they may help us to understand why executive pay is higher now than it once was.)
  5. Performance related pay causes executive pay packets to rise on average. Critics of high executive pay often call for pay to be more closely linked with performance – in the form of stock rewards, for example. But as Murphy shows, this actually makes the ‘problem’ of CEO pay even worse, because pay has to rise on average to reflect greater risk. “The payoffs from stock options, for example, are inherently more risky than are payoffs from restricted stock, which in turn are more risky than base salaries.” So the more we try to make CEO’s pay reflect performance, the higher CEO pay will be!
  6. Employee representation can be bad for firms. The High Pay Centre’s policy prescriptions are quite modest – today they’re calling for firms to include a worker representative on remuneration committees, which doesn’t sound like a big deal. And it probably isn’t. But employee representation on boards can be a very bad thing: according to a Financial Times report on Volkswagen last year, worker representation on the car company’s board turned the board atmosphere toxic, and led to very bad decisions being made. Reform of bad practices was blocked by the employee-supported Chairman, who worked against shareholders and his own Chief Executive to stop jobs from being cut and working time limits from being raised, ultimately harming the firm. Strangely, the High Pay Centre cites Volkswagen as a success story.
  7. It’s shareholder money on the line. Ultimately, it’s hard to see the public interest argument here. If shareholders are really missing a trick and overpaying their chief executives, who loses out? Well, shareholders, in the form of lower profits. And they’re the ones who stand to gain if they can fix that problem. Unless the High Pay Centre can show that the market is completely broken (and pointing to high pay as evidence for this is circular reasoning) there must be an opportunity for a firm to realize that CEOs are being overpaid, to buck the trend, and presumably to prosper. Why hasn’t that happened yet?