Academics critical of skyrocketing pay for CEOs

TheStar.com – business
Published Monday, Jan. 3, 2010.   Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew, Business Reporter

If you forgot to wish the boss a Happy New Year, don’t worry. He’s already had one.

By about mid-afternoon Monday, the 100 best-paid chief executive officers in Canada will have already earned the equivalent of an average full-time salary in this country.

The gap between the executive suite and minimum-wage workers is even larger. The average CEO had earned a full year’s worth of minimum-wage work by about 3:15 p.m. on New Year’s Day.

That’s according to an annual study on executive pay from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The total average compensation for Canada’s 100 best-paid CEOs was $6.64 million in 2009, compared to the average Canadian income of $42,988 and the average minimum wage worker’s income of $19,877.

The biggest pay package went to Aaron Regent at Barrick Gold Corp., who made $24.2 million in 2009, according to Mackenzie’s calculations. In second place was Hunter Harrison at Canadian National Railway Co., at $17.3 million, followed by Gerald Schwartz at Onex Corp., at $16.7 million.

“It’s just breathtaking,” Hugh Mackenzie, economist for the Ottawa-based non-profit research group, said in an interview. “The skyrocketing level of executive pay in Canada and the U.S. is the primary factor that lies behind growing income inequality.”

The typical explanation — that companies need to offer their chief executive millions in order to attract, keep and motivate a suitable leader — doesn’t hold water, Mackenzie said.

“You could ask how motivating is it for the average employee, who is actually the person who generates the income for the corporation, to see that their CEO is making 300 times what they are. I would think that would be kind of demotivating.”

The CEO pay figures may even be underestimated owing to a change in the way stock option compensation is reported, according to the report.

Corporations used to report the amount of income that executives actually realized when they cashed in their options.

Beginning in 2008, rather than reporting the amount their executives realized during the year by cashing in options, they reported a statistical estimate of what the options might have been worth in the market when they were granted.

The centre argues in its report that the amounts reported tend to be understated.

There is growing criticism in social policy and academic circles about the practice of giving CEOs bonuses based on share value.

Researchers say it is difficult to connect the dots between the actions of a CEO and the company’s stock price.

“Paying a CEO bonus based on the stock price is rewarding people for something they have very little to do with,” Mackenzie said.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives suggests that rather than regulate CEO pay, it may be more effective to change the tax treatment of stock options that are granted to executives.

“There are a lot of people talking about it. But although there is a lot of discussion, it seems difficult to establish any kind of momentum on a response to it,” Mackenzie said.

“To put it bluntly, I think it’s the classic example of how difficult it is to achieve tax reform when the people who are most negatively affected and have the most to lose have the most disposable income available to fight it.”

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