Understanding ever-increasing executive pay, por Simon Wren-Lewis.
So what is the alternative story to the argument that executive pay reflects the market rewarding the rising productivity of CEOs? The first obvious point is that executive pay is not determined in anything that approximates an idealised market where prices are set to balance supply and demand. Instead it is set within a bargaining framework between employer (the firm) and employee (the CEO). Even if we imagine the employer in this case to be someone that genuinely reflects the interests of shareholders, the costs associated with losing your CEO, together with informational problems in assessing their true worth (which can lead to the age old problem of judging quality by price, and the ‘arms race’ that Chris describes), mean that the CEO potentially has substantial bargaining power.
Yet this situation did not suddenly arise in the 1980s, and it will be true in most countries, and not just in the US and UK. So why did executive pay start taking off in the 1980s in these two countries? Well something else happened at the same time: tax rates on top incomes were also substantially reduced. Why does reducing the tax rate on top incomes lead to a rise in those incomes pre tax? With lower tax rates, the CEO has a much greater incentive to put lots of effort into the bargaining process with the company. They, rather than the tax man, will receive the rewards from being successful.
This is the idea set out in this paper by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva . They call this a “compensation bargaining” model. The paper backs up this theoretical model with evidence that there is a “clear correlation between the drop in top marginal tax rates and the surge in top income shares”. In addition, they present microeconomic evidence that CEO pay for firm’s performance that is outside the CEO’s control (i.e. that is industry wide, and so does not reflect personal performance) is more important when tax rates are low. (Things like stock options).
Now one reaction to this model is that it ignores many other social/economic factors that may also have been important. Things like changing social norms and political changes (loosely, the rise of neoliberalism), reduced union power, changes in financial regulations, growing financialisation etc. I think this reaction is correct, but as the authors themselves say, such explanations are “multi-dimensional and it is difficult to estimate compellingly the contribution of each specific factor”. Economists like simple models that can be tested against the data. That is what the compensation bargaining model set out by Piketty et al does. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to think about bargaining effort as a proxy for all these other factors.