Publication Date

March 2007


[Excerpt] In the past ten years, the pay of chief executive officers (CEOs) has more than doubled, and the ratio of median CEO to worker pay has risen to 179 to 1. High and rising executive pay could be an issue of public concern on two different grounds. First, it is contributing to widening income inequality that may be of concern from an equity perspective. Second, it could be the result of economically inefficient labor markets. It is difficult to determine whether executive pay is excessive across the board since executives’ marginal product cannot be directly observed. An upward trend in pay over time is not sufficient proof that the market is not efficient since factors determining supply and demand, such as the skills required of the position, can change over time. To show that pay is excessive from an economic perspective, one must first demonstrate that there is a market failure that is preventing the market from functioning efficiently. The market failure could originate in the division in large modern firms between management and ownership, which is typically dispersed among millions of shareholders. Shareholders’ interests are represented by a board of directors. Critics of executive pay have argued that boards have all too often been “captured” by the executive and are no longer negotiating pay packages that are in the shareholders’ best interests. They point to a number of common practices that they call “stealth compensation” which are inconsistent with arm’s length contracting. These include “golden parachutes,” generous severance packages, company-provided perks, and bonuses that are unrelated to firm performance.


Suggested Citation
Shorter, G. & Labonte, M. (2007). The economics of corporate executive pay (RL33935). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.