Are CEOs paid their value added?

Remember Paul Krugman’s forays into “the wage reflects what the top earners are really worth” topic, and the surrounding debates?  Why should this discussion be such a fact-free zone?  Why so little discussion of tax incidence?

Let’s start with the literature.

Read this paper by Kevin Murphy (pdf), especially pp.33-38.  Admittedly the paper is from 1999 and it won’t pick up the more recent problems with the financial sector.  But most of the data are from plain, ol’ garden variety CEOs.  In many of the estimations we see CEOs picking up less than one percent of the value they create for the firm, and all of the estimates of their value capture are impressively small, albeit rising over time.  Never is the percentage of value capture anything close to one hundred percent.  “One percent value capture” is an entirely plausible belief.

You might think this sounds whacky but it makes theoretical sense.  For instance often CEO performance is motivated by equity and options, but few CEOs are wealthy enough to own more than a very small chunk of the company (risk-aversion may be a factor too), and that will mean their pay won’t reflect value created at the margin.  It’s a standard result of agency theory, stemming from first principles.

Maybe you’re suspicious of this work but the way these estimates are done is quite straightforward, and results of this kind have not been overturned.  You can formulate a “pay isn’t closely enough linked to performance” critique from these investigations, but not a “they’re paid as much as they contribute” conclusion or anything close to that.  (And, if it matters, the “conservative” and also WSJ Op-Ed page view has embraced these results for almost two decades, at least since the original Jensen-Murphy JPE piece; Krugman identified the conservative position with the Clarkian perfect competition w = mp stance but that is incorrect.)

You might be thinking “Ha!  Burn on Krugman!,” but not so fast.  Like Wagner’s music, Krugman’s position here is “better than it sounds,” though not nearly as strong as Krugman would like it to be.

Let’s turn to taxation of the top 0.1 percent, and focus on these CEOs.  If the tax rate on their income/K gains goes up, the firm will compensate by giving them more equity/options, to keep them working hard.  In other words, the tax rate on the top earners can be hiked without much effect on CEO effort because there is an offset internal to the firm.  At some margin the firm’s shareholders will be reluctant to chop off more equity/options to the CEO, but the marginal value created by maintaining the incentive seems to be very high, for reasons presented above, and so the net CEO incentives will be maintained, even in light of new and higher taxes on CEO earnings.

But here’s the problem, if that’s the right word.  The incidence of that tax is going to fall on shareholders in general and thus on capital in general.  These top CEOs could even get off scot-free, if the shareholders up the equity/options participation of the CEO to offset completely the effects of the new and higher tax rate.  This is also relevant to the Piketty-Saez-Stantcheva analysis that everyone has been talking about; they don’t see these mechanisms with sufficient clarity.

Moral of the story: it’s harder to tax the top earners than you think.

The second moral is that tax incidence remains a neglected topic, even among top economists.

The third moral is that too many people, including both Krugman and his critics on this point, have been neglecting the literature.

By the way, other assumptions can be made and other results generated, but I am focusing on one of the core cases.


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