Taking Stock: Why Executive Pay Results in an Unstable and Inequitable Economy

Jun 4, 2014

Download the paper by William Lazonick.

Over the past three decades, U.S. executive pay has exploded. In 2012, the 500 highest paid executives in Standard and Poor’s ExecuComp database (drawn from company proxy statements) averaged $30.3 million in total compensation, with 42 percent from stock options and 41 percent from stock awards. This amount of compensation is almost three times the level of inflation-adjusted compensation in the early 1990s, when executive pay was already excessive. Market forces did not bestow these riches on top executives; their boards of directors did. Dominated by CEOs of other companies who have a common interest in increasing executive pay, boards have stuffed senior executive pay packages with stock options and stock awards. These same boards have approved multibillion stock buyback programs that enable executives to benefit from the manipulation of their companies’ stock prices.

Key Arguments

  • The American public has long been aware of the excessive compensation of top executives, but insufficient attention has been focused on how the stock-based components of this pay have encouraged CEOs to distribute cash to shareholders at the expense of investment in innovation and provision of secure, well-paid jobs.
  • The estimated $3.6 trillion that Standard and Poor’s 500 companies have spent on buybacks since 2001, in addition to $2.4 trillion in dividends, is a major reason for the ongoing erosion of middle-class employment opportunities in the U.S.
  • Since the early 1980s, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which is supposed to protect against the manipulation of financial markets, has legalized the use of stock buybacks to manipulate the stock market.
  • The SEC must regulate rather than encourage stock-market manipulation, and boards of directors, which have permitted excessive executive pay and massive distributions to shareholders, instead must represent all economic interests – including taxpayers and workers – whose investments are at risk in the business corporation.

Read: "Taking Stock: Why Executive Pay Results in an Unstable and Inequitable Economy," by William Lazonick.

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