CEOs now earn 320 times as much as a typical worker
What this report finds: Corporate boards running America’s largest public firms are giving top executives outsize compensation packages that have grown much faster than the stock market and the pay of typical workers, college graduates, and even the top 0.1%. In 2019, a CEO at one of the top 350 firms in the U.S. was paid $21.3 million on average (using a “realized” measure of CEO pay that counts stock awards when vested and stock options when cashed in rather than when granted). This 14% increase from 2018 occurred because of rapid growth in vested stock awards and exercised stock options tied to stock market growth. Using a different “granted” measure of CEO pay, average top CEO compensation was $14.5 million in 2019. In 2019, the ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was 320-to-1 under the realized measure of CEO pay; that is up from 293-to-1 in 2018 and a big increase from 21-to-1 in 1965 and 61-to-1 in 1989. CEOs are even making a lot more—about six times as much—as other very high earners (wage earners in the top 0.1%). From 1978 to 2019, CEO pay based on realized compensation grew by 1,167%, far outstripping S&P stock market growth (741%) and top 0.1% earnings growth (which was 337% between 1978 and 2018, the latest data year available). In contrast, compensation of the typical worker grew by just 13.7% from 1978 to 2019.
Why it matters: Exorbitant CEO pay is a major contributor to rising inequality that we could safely do away with. CEOs are getting more because of their power to set pay—and because so much of their pay (about three-fourths) is stock-related, not because they are increasing productivity or possess specific, high-demand skills. This escalation of CEO compensation, and of executive compensation more generally, has fueled the growth of top 1.0% and top 0.1% incomes, leaving less of the fruits of economic growth for ordinary workers and widening the gap between very high earners and the bottom 90%. The economy would suffer no harm if CEOs were paid less (or were taxed more).
How we can solve the problem: We need to enact policy solutions that would both reduce incentives for CEOs to extract economic concessions and limit their ability to do so. Such policies could include reinstating higher marginal income tax rates at the very top; setting corporate tax rates higher for firms that have higher ratios of CEO-to-worker compensation; establishing a luxury tax on compensation such that for every dollar in compensation over a set cap, a firm must pay a dollar in taxes; reforming corporate governance to give other stakeholders better tools to exercise countervailing power against CEOs’ pay demands; and allowing greater use of “say on pay,” which allows a firm’s shareholders to vote on top executives’ compensation.