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WASHINGTON — Pay for globe-trotting chief executive officers has soared to new heights, even as most workers remain grounded by paychecks that are barely budging.
While pay for the typical CEO of a company in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index surged 8.8 percent last year to $10.5 million, it rose a scant 1.3 percent for U.S. workers as a whole. That CEO now earns 257 times the national average, up from a multiple of 181 in 2009, according to an analysis by the Associated Press and Equilar.
Those figures help reveal a widening gap between the ultrawealthy and ordinary workers.
Here are five reasons why CEOs are enjoying lavish pay increases and five reasons many people are stuck with stagnant incomes.
WHY CEOs ARE GETTING HUGE RAISES
● They’re paid heavily in stock.
Unlike most workers, chief executives receive much of their compensation in the form of company stock — a lot of it. The theory behind compensating CEOs this way is that it aligns the interests of senior management with those of shareholders, which would seem beneficial for a company.
Yet accounting scandals of the early 2000s showed that some executives gamed the system, ultimately at shareholder expense. Executives at firms such as Tyco International Ltd. and Enron Corp. tinkered with the books to boost corporate incomes, share prices, and the fortunes of insiders and senior managers.
Still, the bonanza continues. The average value of stock awarded to CEOs surged 17 percent last year to $4.5 million, the largest increase ever recorded by the Associated Press. Remember, too: Long-term gains on stocks are taxed at lower rates than ordinary pay is.
● Peer pressure.
Robert Solow, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, recently observed that CEOs live in “Lake Wobegon,” that fabled town created by radio show host Garrison Keillor where, it is said, “all the children are above average.”
Mr. Solow didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Corporate boards often set CEO pay based on what the leaders of other companies make. No board wants an “average” CEO. So boards tend to want to pay their own CEO more than rival CEOs who are chosen for benchmarking compensation packages.
This will “naturally create an upward bias” in pay, Charles Elson and Craig Ferrere of the University of Delaware concluded in a 2012 paper. “The compounded effect has been to create a significant disparity between the pay of executives and what is appropriate to the companies they run.”
● The superstar effect.
Companies often portray their CEOs as the business equivalents of LeBron James or Peyton Manning — athletes who command enormous pay for their performance and ability to draw crowds.
As corporate giants compete around the world, the drive to procure corporate superstars has helped inflate CEO pay.
● Friendly boards of directors.
Some board members defer to a CEO’s judgment on what his or her own compensation should be. There’s a good reason: Many boards are composed of current and former CEOs at other companies. And in some cases, board members are essentially hand-picked or at least vetted by the CEO. Not surprisingly, the boards’ compensation committees offer generous bonuses.
● Stricter scrutiny.
Even companies with vigilant boards and an emphasis on objectively assessing CEO performance might shower their chief executives with money. When a CEO faces more scrutiny and a greater chance of dismissal, the companies often raise pay to compensate for the risk of job loss, according to a 2005 article by Benjamin Hermalin, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
WHY MANY OF US AREN’T GETTING A RAISE
● Blame the robots.
Millions of factory workers have lost their spots on assembly lines to machines. Offices need fewer secretaries and bookkeepers in the digital era.
Robots and computers are displacing jobs that involve routine tasks, according to research by David Autor, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As these middle-income positions vanish, workers are struggling to find new occupations that pay as much. Some must settle for low-paying retail and food-service jobs.
● High unemployment.
The aftermath of the Great Recession left a glut of available workers. Businesses face less pressure to give meaningful raises when a ready supply of job seekers is available. They’re less fearful that their best employees will defect to another employer.
The current 6.3 percent unemployment rate, down from 10 percent in October, 2009, isn’t so low that employers will spend more to hire and keep workers.
Wages grew in the late 1990s when unemployment dipped to 4 percent, a level that made high-quality workers scarce and compelled businesses to raise pay.
Companies can cap wages by offshoring jobs to poorer countries, where workers on average earn less than Americans.
Consider China. A typical Chinese factory employee made $1.74 an hour in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — roughly a tenth of what their U.S. counterpart made.
Some analysts say this decades-long trend may have peaked. But many economists say the need for the United States to compete with a vast supply of cheap labor worldwide continues to exert a depressive effect on U.S. workers’ pay.
● Weaker unions.
Organized labor no longer commands the heft it once did.
More than 20 percent of U.S. workers were unionized in 1983, compared with 11.3 percent last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That has drastically reduced the unions’ sphere of influence.
Result: Fewer workers can collectively negotiate for raises.
● Low inflation.
For the last five years, the government’s standard inflation gauge, the consumer price index, has averaged an ultralow 1.6 percent. When inflation is high, employees tend to factor it into requested pay raises. But when inflation is as low as it has been, it almost disappears as a factor in pay negotiations. Workers typically settle for less than if inflation were higher.