Reining In Shameful Executive Pay

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Congress did it: it capped corporate pay for the first time in our nation’s history. The stimulus package Congress adopted at the end of last week goes further in capping executive salaries than even the Obama administration recommended. Nonetheless, the President has signed the bill into law. The stimulus pay cap applies to top execs and the highest paid employees at all 359 banks that have already received government assistance, according to the Washington Post. Panic has set in among executives; there’s talk of mass exodus among the top brass at companies where pay has been capped.

“That is pretty draconian — $500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus,” James F. Reda told the Washington Post. Reda is founder and owner of his own compensation consulting firm. “And you know these companies that are in trouble are not going to pay much of an annual dividend.”

Now let’s get this straight. Executives of companies that took on too much risk and saw their firms collapse had to turn to the government for a taxpayer funded bailout – which they readily sought and accepted. Now when the government wants to put strings on that money, the talk is that these same executives, who failed to keep their companies solvent in the first place, will walk away because they need higher salaries – $500,000 isn’t enough for these kingpins even if it is 8 1/2 times the salary of the average American family. (figuring that Americans’ average annual salary is around $61,000) .

Mr. Reda said only a handful of big companies pay chief executives and other senior executives $500,000 or less in total compensation. He said such limits will make it hard for the companies to recruit and keep executives, most of whom could earn more money at other firms.

But the financial world brought this on themselves, with kingpins such as Lloyd Blankstein of Goldman Sachs, who made $68.5 million in 2007, setting Wall Street salary records. Richard Wagoner, the chief executive of failing General Motors, made $14.4 million in 2007 (much of it in stocks and options on a base salary of $1.6 million). (Read more on this from the Wall Street Journal.)

These shameless compensation packages and bonuses are taking place in a year when millions of Americans have their lost jobs and with it, their health insurance. Millions of homeowners are facing mortgage foreclosures, and food pantries are facing unprecedented demand. The rich have seen their incomes grow by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years while the wages of those on the bottom have stagnated. According to Lane Kenworthy, Professor at the University of Arizona, in 1979 household income among those in the top 1% averaged $325,000 (in 2005 dollars). By 2005 that had increased to nearly $1.1 million. Among the poorest 20% of households, average income was $14,500 in 1979 and $15,500 in 2005. Among the middle 60% of households, average income rose from $42,000 to $51,000.

So Congress is understandably reacting to constituent outrage about the pay packages of the top execs. For years policy makers and shareholder activists have tried to figure out how to curb outsize executive pay, with little success. Now they’ve finally done something. We agree with the President, who told NBC Nightly News: “If the taxpayers are helping you, then you have certain responsibilities to not be living high on the hog.”

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