There’s a Bubble That Still Threatens the Entire American Economy…and Few Are Talking About It

At the Institute for Policy Studies, we’ve been tracking our nation’s astounding executive pay bubble since 1994. We began our annual “Executive Excess” series because we believe that excessive executive compensation has deeply troubling consequences, for both our economy and our polity.

To put the matter most simply: Outrageously large rewards for executives give executives an incentive to behave outrageously — and engage in behaviors that put the rest of us at risk.

Over the years, we’ve documented, for instance, how CEOs who downsize, outsource and cook their corporate books have consistently collected bigger paychecks than even the average overpaid U.S. top executive.

Now looking back on our work, we plead guilty to a lack of imagination. We didn’t imagine, even in our most cynical moments, that America’s top executives — in their chase after fortune — would be reckless enough to melt down the entire global financial system.

Since last September, all sorts of analysts and public officials have pinpointed executive excess right at the heart of the recklessness that brought the United States — and the world — to the brink of economic cataclysm.

“It is the compensation system,” former Federal Home Loan Bank Board Litigation Director William Black put it most simply, “that has proved to be the weak point in everything critical that went wrong, that has produced a global catastrophe.”

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, at least at times, appears to concur.

“The financial crisis had many significant causes,” he said in June. “But executive compensation practices were a contributing factor.”

In February, President Barack Obama signaled an intent to act on this analysis. He committed his administration to a “long-term effort” that would examine how executive pay patterns “have contributed to a reckless culture and quarter-by-quarter mentality that in turn have wrought havoc in our financial system.”

This “long-term effort,” sadly, has yet to seriously begin. The denizens of our nation’s executive suites are going about their business with the same visions of compensation sugarplums that danced in their heads before last September.

In our just-released edition of “Executive Excess,” we explain how many of the executives responsible for our country’s economic woes are now using the crisis as a springboard for even greater personal windfalls.

Of the 20 financial firms that have received the most bailout dollars, 10 have reported details on the stock options handed out to executives early this year, when share prices were bumping the market bottom.

Thanks to taxpayer assistance, most of these firms have enjoyed surges in their stock prices in recent months that have inflated the value of these options. The top five executives at these 10 firms have seen their personal portfolios jump by $90 million — in stock-option gains alone, not counting any salary or bonus.

American Express CEO Kenneth Chennault has been one of the big winners. In January, he pocketed options to buy nearly 1.2 million shares at a moment when the credit card giant’s stock had nosedived to $16.71 per share.

With the help of $3.4 billion in bailout support, the company has since started to rebound, and in recent weeks, American Express shares have been trading at around $32. That’s still only half what they were worth at their peak in 2007, but Chennault, amazingly, stands to make nearly $18 million from his 2009 options alone.

What about all those bailout executive-pay “restrictions” put in place since last September? These restrictions affect only those firms that have collected bailout dollars from the federal government. And the restrictions apply only to a small number of personnel at these firms, and even then they do precious little to return pay at the top of the corporate ladder to the much lower levels considered eminently adequate a generation ago.

Beyond the large but limited universe of bailout recipients, the executive pay status quo remains securely in place. Last year, S&P 500 CEOs averaged $10.1 million, that’s 319 times the salary of the average U.S. worker. The gap three decades ago was between 30 and 40 times.

Lobbying armies from corporate and financial trade associations are now energetically doing battle behind the scenes to keep even modest changes in pay rules off the legislative table. We need, truth be told, much more than modest changes.

The debate in Washington over executive pay reform is currently revolving around questions of corporate governance, about how we can better “empower shareholders” to keep executives in check.

These questions certainly do need to be explored. But unless we also address more fundamental questions — about the overall size of executive pay, about the unconscionable gap between the rewards that executives and workers are receiving — the executive pay bubble will continue to inflate.

Public officials in Congress and the White House hold the pin that could deflate the executive pay bubble. They have so far failed to use it.

Sarah Anderson is director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, and a co-author of the books Field Guide to the Global Economy and Alternatives to Economic Globalization. In 1998 and 1999, she served on the staff of the bipartisan International Financial Institutions Advisory Commission (the “Meltzer Commission”).
IPS associate fellow Sam Pizzigati edits “Too Much,” an online weekly on excess and inequality.