Are top CEOs underpaid?

There is another lesson from the numbers: CEOs are paid less than the value they bring to their companies. More concretely, CEOs capture only about 68–73 percent of the value they bring to their firms. For purposes of comparison, one recent estimate suggests that workers in general are paid no more than 85 percent of their marginal product on average [Isen 2012]; that difference is attributed largely to costs of searching for workers and training them to become valuable contributors. In other words, workers actually seem to be underpaid by somewhat less than CEOs are, at least when both are judged in percentage terms. Both of those are inexact estimates, but in fact these results are what economic reasoning would lead us to expect. It may be easier to bargain the CEO down below his or her marginal product a bit more, given that the talents of the CEO would be worth much less in non-CEO endeavors.

I find the most convincing estimate of the gap between pay and marginal product to be that of Lucian A. Taylor, at the Wharton School of Business. He finds that a typical major CEO captures somewhere between 44 percent and 68 percent of the value he or she brings to the firm, with the additional qualification that the CEO’s contract offers some insurance value—that is, in bad times for the firm the pay of the CEO won’t be cut in proportion, but the CEO shares to a lesser degree on the upside. That 44–68 percent is therefore a better deal for the CEOs than it may appear at first glance. Still, you won’t find credible estimates suggesting that major CEOs, taken as a group, are capturing more than 100 percent of their value added. Here too, that is what you would expect from a competitive bidding process.

Part of the accompanying footnote: For the 68–73 percent estimate, see Nguyen and Nielsen 2014; for the 44–68 percent estimate, see Taylor 2013… It is a little-known fact that the current use of high-powered financial incentives for American CEOs still has not reattained the level it held in the pre–Second World War period.

That is an excerpt from my Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, due out next week.


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