CEO pay: Let them eat golf balls

Our view: CEOs in the Baltimore area and elsewhere earned an embarrassment of riches last year

July 11, 2011

The latest news on executive pay at publicly traded companies is good — if you happen to be a CEO, that is. Reflecting the national trend, at least 14 highly-paid chief executives of 19 companies surveyed in the Baltimore region saw fatter paychecks in 2010, according to a Sun analysis.

We are not interested in vilifying the executives who in many cases steered their companies toward much better financial performances last year. It's entirely possible many were well-deserving of a merit-based wage increase. That Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank saw a merit increase, for instance, seems entirely justified given that it was tied to his company's $1 billion in sales and boosted his relatively modest pay (with heavy emphasis on "relatively") to $1.3 million.

But as those fortunate executives also included Mayo A. Shattuck III of Constellation Energy Group, whose investors gave a nonbinding thumbs down to his 44 percent salary increase (for a total of $15.7 million) in the aftermath of huge losses, we're guessing that not all those executives are deserving of such riches — or at least stockholders feel that way.

It doesn't take a socialist, or even a run-of-the-mill liberal, to observe that something is seriously out of whack when it comes to executive compensation in this country. That CEOs are now making 343 times their median workers' salaries compared to 42 times in 1980, the most imbalanced ratio to be found in the industrialized world, should raise concerns about American competitiveness.

Remarkably, the modest compensation disclosure reforms of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul continue to come under attack by Wall Street, which shows that CEOs are at least capable of being embarrassed. Last month, GOP members on the House Financial Services Committee voted to repeal a provision that requires companies to report their own CEO-to-worker pay ratio.

Wall Street isn't wild about the nonbinding votes over CEO pay either, by the way, but these types of disclosures might have some modest effect on discouraging big, undeserved raises. And this time the term "modest" is offered unconditionally: So far, CEO pay has gotten rejected by a majority of shareholders only 1.5 percent of the time.

It would be one thing if CEO pay was set in some rational, objective or even capitalistic manner. But it's usually set by governing boards with strong incentive to raise pay and little reason, or desire, to say no to their management teams. Study after study has documented that CEO compensation is often wholly unrelated to company performance.

How many Americans saw a 23 percent pay increase last year? Nationwide, that's what top executives experienced, while average workers got a one-half of 1 percent boost, according to one company that tracks such compensation. No wonder executives and their minions in Congress don't want to see that ratio publicized — it's bound to grow far worse.

Imagine what the public reaction would be if education reformers wanted such a pay scale for teachers? Forget test scores or other performance measures, let's designate part-time governing boards appointed by the teachers themselves and filled with fellow teachers to decide how much they should get paid.

The economy continues to be fragile, consumer confidence is low and unemployment numbers are high. Collectively, the CEOs aren't doing a great job turning the economy around, yet you wouldn't know it from their paychecks. On the factory floor, workers are asked to take on more responsibilities, increase their productivity and work harder, but you wouldn't know it from their paychecks either.

We don't know that mere disclosure will change this alarming trend in pay disparity. But it certainly would appear to be useful information for consumers and investors to make informed decisions about companies with which they may wish to do business.

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