In Long Beach, Joseph Zubretsky, the new CEO of Molina Healthcare, the giant insurer, is set to take home $20.9 million over a year.
Thats 450 times the pay of Molinas median worker.
In Irvine, Michael Mussallem, CEO of Edwards LifeSciences, the heart valve manufacturer, made $10.8 million last year.
That was 215 times more than Edwards median employee.
In Glendale, Ronald L. Havner, Jr., CEO of Public Storage, the self-storage company, earned $10.5 million.
That was 439 times the salary of his companys median worker.
Across Southern California and the nation, eye-popping pay ratios between chief executives and the rank and file are being disclosed for the first time, under a federal mandate seven years in the making.
“The titans of industry tried to bottle up this rule,” said former California treasurer Phil Angelides who chaired the federal Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission which investigated the causes of the Great Recession.
“CEOs have managed to plant themselves in a river of money,” he added. “But the rise in productivity since the 1950s has not led to a parallel rise in workers wages.”
RECESSION LEADS TO REFORMS
Publicly-traded companies have been disclosing top managers pay since 1933, information thats buried in proxy statements filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, spurred by shareholder demands for transparency and taxpayer fury over Wall Street bailouts, is shining a new spotlight on CEO compensation.
In recent years, the nations 8,100 public companies began giving investors a nonbinding “say-on-pay” vote on executive compensation. Now, those same companies also must divulge the pay ratio between their CEOs and their rank-and-file, dividing the top bosss earnings by those of the median employee — the level at which half the companys workers make more and half make less.
Whether youre a Wal-Mart cashier, a Bank of America teller or a Boeing engineer, youll be able to go to SEC.gov, the commissions website, click on “company filings” and compare what you make to the chief executives take. You also can see median pay information for colleagues and look up the compensation ratios at comparable businesses.
In 2016, a poll by the Stanford Business Schools Center for Corporate Governance found that 74 percent of Americans believed CEOs in the largest 500 companies are not “paid the correct amount relative to the average worker.” It also found that 62 percent believed CEO pay should be capped “no matter the company and its performance.”
A stark reality underlies that sense of inequity.
From 1978 to 2016, CEO compensation at the nations 350 largest firms rose 937 percent, 70 percent faster than the stock market, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank which issues a yearly executive pay report. Over the same period, the report found, the typical workers compensation grew 11.2 percent.
In 2016, the nations 350 biggest public companies paid their CEO an average of $15.6 million.
When he was running for president, Donald Trump told CBSs “Face the Nation” called CEO pay “disgraceful…You see these guys making these enormous amounts of money, and its a total and complete joke.”
But he added this: “Its very hard, if you have a free enterprise system, to do anything about that.”
Corporate groups call the ratio rule a crude measure. Smaller technology firms with an educated workforce may have narrow ratios. Large retailers with many low-skilled part-timers, and manufacturers with numerous foreign employees, have wide gaps.
Mattel, the El Segundo toy maker, famous for its Barbie dolls, is a case in point. Its CEO-to-worker pay ratio — 4,987 to one — is partly because three quarters of its workforce is in China and other low-paying countries, dragging down the median workers annual pay to $6,271.
But regardless of the ratio, Mattel CEO Margaret Georgiadis $31.3 million windfall last year was double the norm at large companies. It included two one-time grants of $14 million and $11 million in company stock to lure her away from a previous job at Google.
Given fears over shareholder anger and plummeting worker morale, companies are expanding their public filings to explain some of the disparities.
Long Beachs Molina, which insures mainly low-income clients, lost $512 million last year and laid off 7 percent of its workforce, some 1,750 employees. CEO Zubretsky, hired from another insurer in November, got a $4 million sign-on bonus and $15.5 million in stock options.
Molinas median worker made $46,397 last year.
“All of our employees will benefit from the success of the turnaround Mr. Zubretsky is leading,” the company said in a statement.
“The vast majority of his compensation is both performance-based and long-term in nature such that his interests are fully aligned with the interests of all our shareholders – he wins only if they win.”
Edwards LifeSciences proxy statement noted that sales grew 16 percent last year, adding that “89% of the total direct compensation of our CEO…was performance-based.” The companys median employee made $50,195.
Public Storages $10.5 million CEO pay is justified by the firms “superior” shareholder returns, its proxy statement suggests. Dubbed a “cash cow” in the financial press, the firms market capitalization grew from $4 billion to $35 billion since 2002, when Havner took over as CEO.
Its median worker earned $23,921 last year.
The ratio rule is “kind of a dig” at CEOs, Havner said.
“Comparing what I do to the median employee is not even apples and oranges. Its more like fruit compared to Star Wars. They dont know how to allocate capital, and their educational level and skill set is vastly different.
“People have decisions to make as to whether they want to improve themselves and get higher paying jobs,” Havner added. “Some people decide to do that and others dont.”
LEGISLATORS WEIGH IN
But why dont rank and file employees share more in the wealth they help create?
That question is driving efforts in the California legislature and in several other states to penalize firms with big CEO pay ratios.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would raise the states 8.84 percent corporate tax rate to 10 percent for companies with ratios between 50-to-one and 100-to-one. The tax would then grow in steps, reaching 13 percent for companies that award the CEO more than 300 times what they pay their median worker.
The measure, SB 1398, would also hike the tax by 50 percent on firms that cut their U.S. staffs while growing their contract and foreign work forces.
“We need to motivate good corporate behavior,” Skinner said. “When companies pay minimum wage, or just above, then taxpayers foot the bill. Their workers depend on food stamps, Medi-Cal and other government programs.”
In 2014, a similar measure gained a majority in the state senate but failed to reach the required two-thirds threshold for a tax increase. The California Chamber of Commerce placed the bill on its “job-killer” list, as it has the Skinner bill, a lobbying effort that often dooms legislation.
But Skinner sees Trumps recent tax law, projected to save corporations about $320 billion over ten years as boosting her bills chances. “Corporations got a huge windfall, so they are in a better position to pay their employees more,” she said.
“Employees, not just CEOs, contribute to profits.”
In March, Bloomberg estimated about 60 percent of the tax bill gains so far are going to investors, compared with 15 percent for employees. That is fueling growing demands for higher wages and a sharper focus on CEO pay ratios.
DISNEY SHAREHOLDERS REVOLT
The Walt Disney Company, one of Southern Californias biggest employers, with 30,000 workers at Disneyland Resorts, stands to gain an estimated $1.6 billion a year under the new tax law.
The company also is in the crosshairs of both its unionized workforce and its shareholders over chief executive Robert Igers compensation.
At Disneys annual shareholder meeting in March, in a stunning say-on-pay defeat, 52 percent of shareholders voted against the Disney CEOs $36.3 million compensation. ISS Analytics, a data analysis firm, calculates Iger is set to make roughly $423 million over the next four years if a deal to buy assets from 21st Century Fox is consummated, Reuters reported.
Disneys board argued the lucrative package is “critical” to retaining Iger, 67, who has presided over record profit growth and has considered retiring.
That argument fell flat with a coalition of Disneyland unions which organized a protest at the companys March meeting, wielding signs proclaiming #StopDisneyPoverty.
The union coalition recently funded a study by Occidental College and the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research group, which cited federal census and economic data showing the average hourly wage for Disneyland workers dropped to $13.36 from $15.80 in inflation-adjusted dollars between 2000 and 2017.
A Disneyland spokeswoman said the survey is unrepresentative of the resorts 30,000 workers. “While we recognize that socio-economic challenges exist for many people living in Southern California, we take pride in our employment experience,” she added.
Disneyland pegs its average wage at $37,000 a year, but that includes tips paid by customers at the resorts restaurants and hotels.
Artemis Bell, 32, a Disneyland night janitor who makes $11.86 an hour after seven years, was among the workers attending Disneys annual meeting.
“Bob Iger makes more in a year than anyone in my department makes in three lifetimes,” Bell said.
“I work very hard at my job to maintain quality,” she said. “But Ive had to go to food banks and sleep on a mattress in a living room to make ends meet. I recently had pneumonia, but I couldnt afford the $40 co-pay to go to the doctor.”
Whether the ratio rule survives may depend on the 2018 mid-term elections, given that the focus on CEO pay is strongest among Democrats.
After Trumps election, Michael Piwowar, a Republican SEC member who was named acting chairman, sought to overturn the mandate. In his view, it was an attempt to “name and shame” executives which “harms investors, negatively affects competition, promotes inefficiencies, and restricts capital formation.”
And in June the GOP-led House of Representatives passed a bill, the Financial CHOICE Act, repealing the ratio rule.
Anne Sheehan, Director of Corporate Governance at Californias State Teachers Retirement System, with a portfolio worth $222 billion, wrote the SEC: “There is a point where shareholders and the broader marketplace are not reaping the benefits of these high levels of pay…Outsized pay at the top can affect morale down the chain of the organization.”
The Senate, fearing a Democratic filibuster, has so far declined to take up the ratio rule repeal.
“In many instances, there is no correlation between outsize CEO pay and the success of a corporation,” said Angelides, the former California treasurer, citing government bailouts of Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and AIG, all run by CEOs with multi-million dollar pay packages.
“Im fascinated by the myth of the indispensable CEO,” he added. “Legions of CEOs run public companies that have been around for decades. Theyre not entrepreneurs who create real wealth through genius. If one collapses on the golf course, hundreds of qualified people are around to take that job.”
PAY FOR PERFORMANCE
A recent survey by the investment research firm MSCI, titled “Out of Whack,” compared ten years of CEO pay to financial and stock market returns at 423 companies. The survey found high-paid CEOs among the worst performers and lower-paid CEOs among the best, even when counting market gains on their stock awards.
“More than 61% of the companies we studied showed poor alignment relative to their peers,” the study concluded.
Moreover, CEO pay is often buoyed by a bull stock market, unrelated to the executives actions, studies find. Stock prices are pumped up by financial engineering, such as share buy-backs, and boards of directors — the people who approve compensation packages — are typically stocked with friendly executives from other companies who tend to reward their peers. CEOs may be tempted to earn more by boosting short-term profits over long-term growth.
Public pension funds are most likely to vote against questionably high CEO pay packages, according to the annual “100 Most Overpaid CEOs” report issued by As You Sow, a non-profit shareholder advocacy group. But large mutual funds, such as BlackRock, Vanguard and Pimco rarely vote against high-paid CEOs with poor financial performance, according to the reports tallies.
“Those who own mutual funds through 401ks and other investment vehicles must hold fund managers accountable,” the report concludes.
Margarethe Wiersema, a corporate strategy professor at UC Irvines Paul Merage School of Business, says prior to the 1980s CEO pay wasnt “so extravagant.”
“Back then, the CEO of a company like General Motors might make a salary of about $1.5 million. He would get a bonus, depending on profit, but never more than 100 percent of base pay,” Wiersema said.
But after the hostile takeovers of the 1980s — when leveraged buyout firms would oust corporate leaders for sluggish stock growth — the nature of CEO pay changed, becoming directly tied to stock price.
“The intentions were good, but compensation went haywire,” Wiersema said.
Abuses proliferated, she added. Some companies that granted stock options to CEOs would then back date them or re-issue them when the price went down, offering the illusion of tying pay to stock performance but eliminating the risk.
Wiersema said she would like to see “more teeth” in the say-on-pay rule to make companies justify high CEO pay. Ratio disclosures wont have an impact, she predicted: “Just because a board takes money away from a CEO doesnt mean that money will be channeled to workers.”
Nor does Wiersema favor tying taxes to ratios, as Skinners bill would do.
A better strategy, she suggested, would be for governments to raise mandatory minimum wages. “Its ridiculous we taxpayers are subsidizing these companies low labor costs. They should pay their employees better.
“And if it means a burger costs 30 cents more, so be it.”