Does CEO pay equal their marginal revenue product?

One reason for the increasing inequality in society is the stagnant wages for the lower and middle income groups – in the USA the top 0.1% have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. Labour compensation at the very top has increased dramatically since the 1970’s.

1970’s – the top 0.1% took home less than 3% of all income
2010 – the top 0.1% took home more than 10% of all income

In the USA the top CEO’s average compensation has grown since the late 1970’s by over 900% to around $15 million a year. In contrast the lower income groups have gone up by only 10%. However when you look at hedge fund and private equity fund managers the salaries are astounding. In 2014 which was seen as not a great year for the industry 25 fund managers made at least $175 million each, and 3 made more than $1 billion.

Are CEO’s worth every cent?

In theory the demand for labour is determined by their marginal revenue product – that is the value of revenue generating by employing an additional worker. Labour markets are imperfect and a monopsony occurs in the labour market when there is a single or dominant buyer of labour. The buyer therefore is able to determine the price at which is paid for services. The monopsonist will hire workers where:

Marginal Cost of labour (MCL) = Marginal Revenue product of labour (MRPL)

Therefore it will use labour up to level of Eq which is where MCL=MRPL. In order to entice workers to supply this amount of labour, the firm need pay only the wage Wq. (Remember that ACL is the supply of labour). You can see, therefore, that a profit-maximising monopsonist will use less labour, and pay a lower wage, than a firm operating under perfect competition.

So if Goldman Sach’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, made $24 million in 2014, that’s because he is worth $24 million to his company. In short, you make what you deserve based on your skills, effort, and productivity, in this fairest of all possible worlds.

However this theory has little to do with how the world actually works. The idea that good CEO’s are entitled to enormous rewards is based on the belief that success or failure of the company depends on one person. According to historian Nancy Koehn, business is a team sport: not only is it impossible to quantify a single leader’s marginal revenue product; it is hard even to describe it clearly. Ultimately a CEO can appoint friends and place them on the compensation committee which recommends the CEO salary. The committee invariably proposes to pay at least as much as the median comparable company, because no board wants to admit that its company has a below-average leader. CEO’s do have key performance indicators (KPI’s) but the CEO can encourage the committee to select metrics that will be easy to satisfy. John Kenneth Galbraith describes CEO pay very succinctly – “The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market reward for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.”

Luck plays an important role in CEO’s pay. Heads of oil companies were paid more when profits increased, even when the profits were not due to their decision making but simply by a rise in the price of oil. On the contrary it is argued that some boards actually do a good job in firing under-performing leaders and that in the end, high compensation is simply the result of the market for talent – supply and demand. The financial sector tend to use the marginal revenue product of labour theory in their awarding of compensation for CEO’s. Bonuses of traders and investment bankers’ are based on the profitability of their own deals but because bonuses can never be negative, individual employees can generate enormous payouts on bets that turn out well while sticking shareholders with the losses on bets that go bad. Furthermore even if bankers do make money by buying low and selling high in the securities markets there is no value generation as there is no tangible output that anyone can consume.

In aristocratic societies such as 18th century France or 19th century Russia, wealthy noblemen who owed their riches to the accident of birth had to worry about the prospect of violent rebellion by the have-nots. By contrast in the US today the wealthy are protected by the widespread belief that their extraordinary incomes – and the inequality that they generate – are simply the product of inescapable economic necessity.

Source: Economism by James Kwak

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