Ever since the Gilded Age, there has been a perception about Wall Street CEOs in the US as being greedy fat cats who exemplify everything that is wrong with executive pay. To them a Wall Street top executive is a snollygoster. That perception - rightly or wrongly, has since been persistent, and remains not exclusive to the US, but the world in general now.
However, if one looked at corporate America these days, they will find any number of executives, particularly in tech, taking home far more than those bankers ever made - even during the boom years before the financial crisis; all without a fraction of the scrutiny or the outrage. In a recently published article in Bloomberg, titled, "Wall Street gets the flak, but tech CEOs get paid all the money," journalists Anders Melin and Cedric Sam discussed the topic - numbers against norms, people and policy.
Tech CEOs get paid far much more than the Bank CEOs through their compensation packages, and minus the flak. As long as their stock prices keep going up, lavishing those lofty compensation packages for the companies are a small price to pay.
Epitome of this would be space exploration and electric-car titan Elon Musk. According to the Bloomberg Pay Index, Musk was the highest-paid executive in the US for 2019 with a whopping $595.3 million. The money stems from the pay deal he scored a couple of years ago: A promise of a haul in the tens of billions of dollars if Tesla Inc became one of the world's most valuable firms.
But as the coronavirus pandemic lays bare the world's biggest economy's inequalities, critics again point out the reality obscured by the rebounding stock market - an economy that's working extraordinarily well for some but less so for many others.
"While excessive compensation might be most dangerous at Wall Street firms because of the systemic risk, sky-high pay throughout corporate America encourages many types of socially and environmentally damaging behavior," said Sarah Anderson, who directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
"And in many sectors, like tech, I think it has largely gotten a pass," she added.
Apple CEO Tim Cook ranks second in the list of top ten highest paid CEOs, mostly thanks to an equity grant he got in 2011. Charter Communications Inc CEO Tom Rutledge is third. Only one person from finance - Blackstone Group Inc Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Gray made it to the top 10, with $107.6 million. By contrast, the top-paid bank CEO was Wells Fargo & Co's Charlie Scharf, whose 2019 package was worth $55.2 million by the end of the year.
Melin and Sam made a succinct remark regarding the big amount the top executives in corporate America, "To some, astronomical executive pay represents part of the fundamental lure of American capitalism - that great wealth is within reach for anyone who works hard enough."
It is also a reminder of how inequitably the riches are shared - an imbalance that has become even more pronounced as millions of Americans, but few executives, have lost their jobs during the pandemic while stocks have soared. Wages as a share of the US economy are near their lowest level since the Federal Reserve began collecting such data in the 1940s. Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that CEO compensation has grown more than 900 percent over the past four decades, compared with just 12 percent for the typical worker.
That trend has been fueled by institutional shareholders, who since the 2008 crash have pushed companies to link pay with performance - most often judged by stock prices. It has effectively created an environment where almost no amount for a single individual is too large as long as the stock keeps going up. It is most pronounced in the tech industry. Four of the top 10 on the Bloomberg Pay Index are tech executives: Apple's Tim Cook, Alphabet Inc's Sundar Pichai, Microsoft Corp's Satya Nadella and Intel Corp's Robert Swan.
Amounts that the tech industry pays its top executives rarely draws much attention. When Alphabet announced that Pichai would collect about $240 million of stock awards in coming years, it yielded little more than a collective shrug. In their defense, some of the tech firms are among the world's biggest in terms of market value. It is a measure that is often used to justify executive pay; and unlike the banks, they are not accused of bringing the financial system to the brink of collapse.
Regulatory filings explain that any one-time grant meant to compensate an executive for several years is allocated over the life of the award. For example - Elon Musk receives no compensation from Tesla Inc. aside from large grants of stock options tied to performance goals. The securities are meant to pay him for a decade. But in cases where the targets were met ahead of schedule and the options have vested, he has received new grants.
Musk got his latest mega-grant of options in 2018, listed in filings with a value of $2.28 billion. The Bloomberg index allocates 1/10th of the securities to each of the next 10 years, and calculates the value of each year's tranche based on the closing stock price on the last day of trading. Elon Musk's $595.3 million for 2019 includes a tranche of the 2018 grant and part of a similar but smaller award he received in 2012.
Like Musk, most executives on the index are not guaranteed to pocket all, or even most, of their packages. Stock awards, which make up the bulk of their pay, are often contingent on performance conditions, and payouts are usually reduced or eliminated if those are not met. On the other hand, if the goals are exceeded, the windfall could be significantly bigger than initially estimated.
Such is the case for Rutledge at Charter: In 2016, he received big grants of stock options and restricted shares that would be his if Charter's share price exceeded certain thresholds over the coming years. In the meantime, he would not receive any additional equity, only his salary and bonus. Charter closed at $530.19 on Thursday in New York, having more than doubled over the past four years. So far, about half the options he got in 2016 have vested. If he exercised all of those in one fell swoop, he would take home more than $250 million before taxes.