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Friday, May 27, 2016

Do CEOs Make 335 Times More Than Average Workers?

Manufacturing Ammo for Class Warfare

The AFL-CIO released its annual report on CEO pay last week (see details here and here), and has calculated a CEO-to-worker-pay ratio of 335-to-1 for 2015, based on the average total compensation package for S&P 500 CEOs of $12.4 million last year, and average annual pay of $36,875 for America’s 99 million rank-and-file workers.

Here are some observations on the AFL-CIO’s questionable methodology that is uses every year to calculate an inflated CEO-to-worker pay ratio (see this related CD post from last May), and an analysis of how a complete confiscation of CEO pay would affect average worker pay.

Dubious Math for Worker Pay

In its 2016 report, the AFL-CIO reports that the average nonsupervisory rank-and-file worker made $36,875 annually in 2015 based on “average nonsupervisory worker pay according to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2015 data.”

No other details are provided, but the $36,875 annual average worker pay calculated by the AFL-CIO is apparently based on an hourly wage of $21.04 for the average nonsupervisory worker in 2015 (BLS data here), an average workweek of only 33.7 hours (BLS data here) for the average rank-and-file nonsupervisory worker, and an assumption of 52 weeks of work per year ($21.04 per hour x 33.7 hours per week x 52 weeks ≈ $36,875).

Here’s an important statistical issue: Every year the AFL-CIO does an apples-to-oranges comparison of: a) total CEO compensation for only 500 CEOs working full-time to b) the cash wages only for 99 million rank-and-file workers, who work less than 35 hours per week on average, and are therefore mostly part-time workers.

But you would never know that from the AFL-CIO’s website because the details of average worker pay are never really explained, and I guess nobody has ever bothered to check and find out that the AFL-CIO is using average annual worker pay for mostly part-time employees who only work 33.7 hours per week on average.

Questions: a) How would the AFL-CIO’s CEO-to-worker pay ratio change if we calculate average worker pay for full-time workers, b) how would the ratio change if we compare the average pay for a rank-and-file workers who work the same number of hours that a typical CEO works, e.g. 45, 50 or 60 hours per week, and c) how would the ratio change if we compare total compensation of both CEOs and rank-and-file workers working full-time?

The chart above summarizes how the CEO-to-worker pay ratio would change, here are the details:

a. Assuming a 40-hour workweek for a rank-and-file worker at an hourly wage $21.04 and average annual pay of $43,763, we would get a CEO-to-worker pay ratio of 283-to-1.

b. Assuming a 45-hour workweek for rank-and-file workers at an hourly wage $21.04 (and 5 weekly hours of overtime at $31.56 an hour) and average annual pay of $51,969, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio would be 239-to-1.

c. Assuming a 50-hour workweek for rank-and-file workers at an hourly wage $21.04 (and 10 weekly hours of overtime at $31.56 an hour) and average annual pay of $60,174, we would get aCEO-to-worker pay ratio of 206-to-1.

d. Assuming a 60-hour workweek for rank-and-file workers at an hourly wage $21.04 (and 20 weekly hours of overtime at $31.56 an hour) and average annual pay of $76,585, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio would be 162-to-1 (or less than half of the AFL-CIO’s reported ratio of 335-to-1).

e. Assuming a 40-hour workweek for full-time rank-and-file workers at $21.04 an hour, and adding the monetary value of employer-provided benefits of $9.59 per hour (based on the 45.6% average that benefits represent as a share of hourly earnings according to the BLS), and total compensation of $63,719, we would get a CEO-to-worker compensation ratio of 195-to-1.

If we further considered a 50 or 60 hour workweek and fringe benefits for rank-and-file workers for an even more accurate apples-to-apples comparison, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio starts approaching 100-to-1, which is a far cry from the AFL-CIO’s 335-to-1 ratio that will be generating sensationalized media coverage in the coming weeks.

Confiscation and Redistribution of CEO Pay

And what’s the whole point of the AFL-CIO’s annual reports on CEO-to-worker pay ratio? The sub-title of the AFL-CIO’s 2015 Executive Paywatch website pretty much sums it up: “High paid CEOs and the low wage economy.” The AFL-CIO’s message seems to be that if CEOs weren’t being so generously over-compensated then the rank-and-file workers would be doing much better and making higher wages. For example, according to the AFL-CIO in 2014:

America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, a country where hard work and playing by the rules would provide working families a middle-class standard of living. But in recent decades, corporate CEOs have been taking a greater share of the economic pie while workers’ wages have stagnated.

The AFL-CIO has fallen here for the zero-sum, fixed pie fallacy, one of the most common economic mistakes that falsely assumes that one party can gain only at the expense of another. But let’s assume that there is a “fixed pie of wages” and do some confiscation and redistribution of CEO compensation to see how that would affect average rank-and-file worker pay.

Question: If the CEOs of the S&P 500 companies received $12.4 million on average last year, then as a group, those 500 CEOs received about $6.20 billion in total compensation in 2015. If the AFL-CIO could wave a magic wand and confiscate that entire amount and redistribute $6.20 billion to the current 99 million rank-and-file workers, what would each one get?

Answer: An annual increase in pay of about $63 for each rank-and-file worker before taxes, or about $1.20 more per week, or 3.5 cents per hour. In other words, complete confiscation and redistribution of S&P 500 CEO compensation would make almost no difference for the average rank-and-file worker.

Bottom Line

The AFL-CIO can only get a distorted and inflated CEO-to-worker pay ratio of 335-to-1 with an apples-to-oranges analysis that compares the total annual compensation of a small, select group of CEOs heading America’s largest multi-national corporations, who probably typically work 50-60 hours per week or more, to the average annual cash wages of part-time rank-and-file employees who work less 34 hours per week on average.

Once we make a more statistically valid apples-to-apples comparison, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio falls in half from the AFL-CIO’s 335-to-1 ratio to only 162-to-1 if we assume a 60-hour work week for the average worker (to be comparable to the workweek of an average CEO), and the ratio falls to less than 200-to-1 once we consider total compensation for both CEOs and full-time rank-and-file workers. Further, even if we could confiscate 100% of the compensation of all S&P 500 CEOs, the typical rank-and-file worker would probably get less than $1 per week in after-tax earnings. Big deal.

Just like last year, the CEO-to-worker pay ratio reported by the AFL-CIO gets my annual “Biggest Blindly Accepted Statistical Fairy Tale of the Year Award.” Well no, it’s actually a tie with the gender wage gap myth and the incessantly repeated “77 cents on the dollar” statistical falsehood. What’s disappointing is that much of the mainstream media seem to blindly accept both of these statistical falsehoods without ever challenging the “statistical legerdemain” that are used to produce and perpetuate these statistical myths.

One exception was this excellent article last year by IBD’s John Merline (“Do CEOs Make 300 Times What Workers Get? Not Even Close“) who concluded:

What’s not understandable is why the mainstream press keeps repeating the massively inflated 300-to-1 number without noting the statistical legerdemain that produced it.

This article is reprinted with the permission of the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Mark J. Perry is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus.