In his book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Thomas Piketty argues that it is impossible to find an “objective basis” for the high salaries of senior executives in terms of their individual productivity: they pay themselves such exorbitant sums simply because they can.
In their study, Bang Dang Nguyen of the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and Kasper Meisner Nielsen of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology looked at how firms’ shares react when the chief executive or another prominent manager dies suddenly. They identified 149 cases of this happening at American companies between 1991 and 2008.
They deem a boss to be overpaid if he gets more than his peers at firms of a similar type and size, but fails to boost his company’s stock market value by at least the amount of his pay premium. They then assume that when an overpaid boss dies, investors will expect his successor’s pay to revert to the average, and will mark up its shares in anticipation of getting back the excess amount they had been handing to the deceased.
So, if the shares rise on an executive’s death, that means he was overpaid; if they fall, he was not. By this measure only 42% of the bosses studied were overpaid; furthermore, those with the most eye-popping rewards were found to be giving the best value for money, as measured by the share-price slump when they passed away.
The study also reckons that of the increase in value that results from a firm hiring an executive, he gets 71% and the shareholders therefore get 29%. In the sense that investors at least get some positive reward from the relationship, executives as a whole are not overpaid.
Followers of Piketty are unlikely to be convinced. They would say that even when bosses add more value than the amount by which their pay exceeds the average, they are still overpaid because the average is itself excessive; and that it is inherently indecent for bosses to get such a big share of the gains from their relationship with their firms. But at least the study has added a bit of light to a debate that usually generates little but heat.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited, London (September 6, 2014)