Where's the wage growth? Only at the very top

Wages for most American workers have flattened or declined — except for one very select group.

The people whose job it is to run companies, otherwise known as CEOs, saw a 17 percent raise last year, according to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, pay for the remainder of workers grew by a fraction of one percent.

The typical CEO made 312 times the earnings of the typical worker, according to the left-leaning EPI.

A big part of CEO's boost comes from stock, since company shares figure prominently in executive pay packages. Take Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who receives no salary yet earned $8.9 million in stock last year, according to regulatory filings. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, a longtime fixture on lists of best-paid executives, earned $3.5 million in salary last year but made 12 times that amount— $43.7 million —in stock awards

The stock market is in the midst of a historic run, with the S&P 500 growing over 350 percent since it bottomed out in 2009. But chief executives have managed to do even better than the market during some periods. Between 1978 and 2000, CEO pay outpaced market gains, per the EPI. The main reason CEO pay has grown so much is simple, the report's authors say: Because CEOs can demand it.

"Over the last several decades, CEO pay has grown much faster than profits, the pay of the top 0.1 percent of wage earners, and the wages of college graduates," wrote EPI fellow Lawrence Mishel and economic analyst Jessica Schieder in their analysis.

They added, "CEOs are getting more because of their power to set pay, not because they are more productive or have special talents or more education."

Because high CEO pay is not actually related to performance, the authors say, there would be no harm in curbing it through progressive taxation or by giving boards more power to curb CEO pay.

The CEO-to-worker discrepancy, while growing, isn't as high now as it was at its peak during the dot-com bubble. In 2000, CEOs made 343 times the pay of workers in their industry.  

ceo-pay.png

But executive pay is coming under increased scrutiny this year with a new legal requirement that companies disclose how their CEO's earnings compared with rank-and-file workers. Corporate consultants have expressed worries that regular employees won't be pleased to find out how their pay compares to the boss, or to their company's median salary. 

Earlier this week, a group of newspaper workers in the U.K. shamed their CEO into returning half of his pay increase into the company. His pay of about $3.3 million was about 100 times that of an entry-level employee at his company. By U.S. standards, that's quite modest.