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Thursday, 17 April 2014 09:06

The Pay's the Thing: How America's CEOs Are Getting Rich Off Taxpayers

Written by  Susan Holmberg

Building revenue(Image: Building revenue via Shutterstock)Income inequality will continue to rise unless we close the performance pay loophole and curb the growth of executive compensation.

It’s proxy season again, and we will soon be deluged with news profiles of CEOs living in high style as our ongoing debate on CEO pay ramps up. Last week, the floodgates opened when the New York Times released its annual survey of the 100 top-earning CEOs. Lawrence Ellison from Oracle Corporation led the list again with over $78 million in mostly stock options and valued perks, an 18 percent drop in pay from last year. Poor Larry.

Rising CEO pay has been a hugely contested issue in the U.S. since the early 20th century, particularly in the midst of economic downturns and rising inequality (these two often go together). Because the numbers are just so staggering, most of the current debate focuses on the rapid rise in CEO pay over the past four decades. While executive pay remained below $1 million (in 2000 dollars) between 1940 and 1970, since 1978 it has risen 725 percent, more than 127 times faster than worker compensation over the same period.

With any luck, ascendant French economist Thomas Piketty and the English-language release of his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century will build much-needed momentum in D.C. to institute reforms that address our CEO pay problem. This is a major driver of America’s rising income inequality, which is the central focus of Piketty’s magnum opus. One reform in particular that is critical to slowing down the growth of CEO pay and its costly impact on our economy is closing the performance pay tax loophole.

Inspired by compensation guru Graef Crystal’s bestseller on corporate excesses and skyrocketing executive pay, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton elevated CEO pay as a core issue of his 1992 campaign with a pledge to eliminate corporate tax deductions for executive pay that topped $1 million. Clinton was successful only in part; his policy did become part of the U.S. tax code  as Section 162(m), but it came with a few unfortunate qualifiers, namely the exception for pay that rewarded targeted performance goals, or “performance pay.”

The logic of performance pay comes from Chicago-school economists Michael C. Jensen and Kevin J. Murphy, who published a hugely influential piece in the Harvard Business Review in the early 1990s that argued executive pay should align CEO interests with what shareholders care about, which is higher stock prices. Otherwise known as agency theory, this idea has profoundly shaped the executive pay debate and is arguably the primary reason the performance pay loophole made it into the tax code.

Once Section 162(m) became law, what do you suppose happened next? Predictably, companies started dispensing more compensation that qualified as performance pay, particularly stock options. Median executive compensation levels for S&P 500 Industrial companies almost tripled in the 1990s, mainly driven by a dramatic growth in stock options, which doubled in frequency.

Most of us think of skyrocketing CEO pay as simply a moral problem. However, economists like Piketty and my Roosevelt Institute colleague Joseph Stiglitz have been expounding about the havoc that rising income inequality wreaks on our economy (and democracy). When middle-class wages stagnate, consumer demand diminishes, which has tremendous spillover effects in terms of investment, job creation, tax revenue, and so forth. That particular set of problems relates to how much CEOs are paid. But there are also costly problems with the structure of CEO pay, i.e. what they’re paid with.

Performance pay can (and has) made executives very wealthy, very quickly, which creates incentives for shortsighted, excessively high-risk, and occasionally fraudulent decisions in order to boost stock prices. What kind of effect does this behavior have on the economy at large? Think mortgage crisis and subsequent global financial meltdown. Performance pay also diminishes long-term business investments. According to William Lazonick, in order to issue stock options to top executives while avoiding the dilution of their stock, corporations often use free cash flow for stock buybacks rather than spending on research and development, capital investment, and increased wages and new hiring. 

All this and Americans get the bill. Beyond the innumerable costs we’ve borne from the recent economic crisis, the Economic Policy Institute calculated that taxpayers have subsidized $30 billion to corporations for the performance pay loophole between 2007 and 2010. According to a recent Public Citizen report, the top 20 highest-paid CEOs received salaries totaling $28 million, but had deductible performance-based compensation totaling over $738 million. Assuming a 35 percent tax rate, that’s a $235 million unpaid tax bill. The Institute for Policy Studies calculated that during the past two years, the CEOs of the top six publicly held fast food chains “pocketed more than $183 million in performance pay, lowering their companies’ IRS bills by an estimated $64 million.”

Congress is long overdue to close the performance pay loophole. The Supreme Court just made that harder. Thanks to Citizens United and now the McCutcheon decision, the same CEOs who are benefitting from the loophole are much freer to draw upon the corporate coffers to donate big money to politicians to maintain these loopholes.

Nevertheless, there is potential for getting it done. Senators Blumenthal (CT) and Reed (RI) have introduced the Stop Subsidizing Multi-Million Dollar Corporate Bonuses Act (S. 1476), which would finally end taxpayers’ subsidies to CEOs by closing the performance pay loophole and capping the tax deductibility of executive pay at $1 million. In the House, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) has introduced a companion bill, HR 3970.

There are many policy ideas for how to curb skyrocketing CEO pay. Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez argue for a much higher income tax rate for top incomes. (The growth rate of CEO pay was at its lowest when the U.S. had confiscatory tax rates for the very rich.) In the current political climate, a more viable step toward slowing the growth of CEO pay and the damage it does to our economy is to, at long last, close the performance pay loophole. It should never have been there in the first place.

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