How do you value the efforts of America's top chief executives? Are they worth 10 times what their average worker makes, 20 times or even 100 times?
The current answer appears to be a ratio of more than 300-to-1, according to a new study from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. The meteoric rise of CEO pay is nothing short of breathtaking, outpacing not only the wages of ordinary workers, but also gains in the stock market and the not-too-shabby rise of income among America's 0.1 percent of top earners.
Surging CEO pay has potentially negative implications for other employees, leaving less on the table for wages, benefits and other compensation. Top execs at large public companies are keeping about 10 percent of their companies' net profits, about double the rate in the early 1990s, according to the AFL-CIO.
While some would argue that CEOs are earning more because they provide extraordinary benefits to their companies, EPI president Lawrence Mishel says the evidence doesn't support that.
"CEO compensation has done so much better than corporate profits or the stock market," Mishel said. "I don't think it's because they are very highly skilled, although they are skilled. The other high-wage earners are very highly skilled as well. I think CEOs are paid more because they can get paid more."
The issue boils down to what Mishel said are embedded "rents" in CEO pay, which means their paychecks don't reflect their greater productivity or value, but simply that the CEOs have the ability to extract concessions in the form of higher pay packages.
Research into how CEO pay is set has shown that companies sometimes tweak the formula to create guideposts that will lift the pay of their corporate leader. One such technique is creating a "peer" yardstick: Board compensation committees cherry-pick groups of companies against which to compare their CEO's pay.
The problem, as detailed by Bloomberg News, is that companies often pick bigger and more profitable firms when creating an executive-pay peer group, which can lead to an inflation of CEO pay. In one example, the owner of Yankee Candle picked enterprise software giant Oracle (ORCL) as a "peer," even though Oracle's revenue is five times greater and its market cap is about 20 times as large.
While some economists argue that a better comparison would be what the "average" CEO is earning, Mishel noted that the country's largest corporations tend to set the standards for executive compensation, and smaller companies, hospitals and universities look to them for guidance on pay. Big corporations also employ a significant chunk of the American workforce: Firms with at least 10,000 workers provide about one-third of the country's payroll.
Average CEO compensation for the country's 350 largest firms was $16.3 million last year, a rise of 54.3 percent since the U.S. exited the Great Recession in 2009, EPI noted. At the same time, average worker pay has stagnated. Median household income slipped 1.1 percent to $54,578 in April 2015 from $55,179 in June 2009, according to Sentier Research.
The jump in CEO pay isn't a new phenomenon, however. From 1978 to 2014, inflation-adjusted CEO pay increased almost 1,000 percent, double the stock market's rise and far higher than the 10.9 percent increase in the average worker pay during the same period, according to EPI.
While some argue that CEO pay reflects the market for highly skilled earners, CEO pay has also far outpaced the income of the top 0.1 percent of American earners, the study found.
"CEO compensation grew from 1.14 times the income of the top 0.1 percent of households in 1989 to 2.54 times in 2013," the report noted. "The large discrepancy between the pay of CEOs and other very-high-wage earners also casts doubt on the claim that CEOs are being paid these extraordinary amounts because of their special skills and the market for those skills."
It goes on to raise a question: "Is it likely that the skills of CEOs in very large firms are so outsized and disconnected from the skills of others that they propel CEOs past most of their cohorts in the top tenth of a percent?"
Mishel noted wryly, "I'm sure they feel they are worth it." The danger, he said, is that such huge pay gains for CEOs aren't without pain elsewhere. He added, "It seems clear that the extraordinary rise in CEO pay isn't matched by corresponding output in the country. When they get a bigger slice of the pie, everyone else gets less."