Corporate Croesus
    The New York Times | Editorial

    Tuesday 08 April 2008

    As accustomed as we are to the other-worldly rewards lavished on captains of finance and industry, it is still galling that the chiefs managed to finagle a raise last year as many of the companies they led were in trouble.

    A study published on Sunday by The Times of many of the biggest companies found that chief executives who had held their jobs for at least two years got an average pay increase of 5 percent last year, despite poor results at many of their companies.

    Net income at Office Depot fell 23 percent last year compared with 2006; its share price fell 64 percent. Steve Odland, its chief, made nearly $18 million all told – some 85 percent more than in 2006. With the share price of Toll Brothers, the luxury home builder, plummeting, it seems reasonable that Robert Toll, its chief, got no bonus. Still, the company took steps to ensure that he gets one this year, even if home-building doesn’t recover.

    It’s hard to square the conceit that chief executives are rewarded for improving companies’ performance with the fact that chiefs at 10 financial-services firms in the study made $320 million last year, even as their banks reported mortgage-related losses of $55 billion.

    Meanwhile, the average earnings of typical workers have failed to keep up with inflation in four of the past five years. According to the economists Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, average incomes in the highest-earning 1 percent of the United States grew 11 percent year-over-year between 2002 and 2006. Incomes in the bottom 99 percent grew by 0.9 percent annually over the period. This year looks bad, too.

    This polarization is producing a pattern of income distribution rarely seen outside Africa or Latin America, and unheard of in the United States, at least since the gilded age. In 2006, the 15,000 families in the top 0.01 percent of the income distribution – earning at least $10.7 million apiece – pocketed 3.48 percent of the nation’s total income, double their share in 1993.

    Some analysts argue that the spectacular rise in executive pay is to be expected in a marketplace in which bigger and bigger firms compete for talent. Others suggest it has more to do with the ability of chief executives to manipulate their boards to set their own pay.

    In any case, the combination of inexorable income growth at the very apex of society and stagnation everywhere else can serve no public good.

    The Bush administration has focused its economic policies on cutting taxes for the very richest Americans. Taxation needs urgently to become more progressive. If the United States is to continue to embrace globalization, technological innovation and other forces that contribute to economic growth, it has to share the spoils better.

  

 

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