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The CEO Pay Slice

CAMBRIDGE – There is now intense debate about how the pay levels of top executives compare with the compensation given to rank-and-file employees. But, while such comparisons are important, the distribution of pay among top executives also deserves close attention.

In our recent research, we studied the distribution of pay among top executives in publicly traded companies in the United States. Such firms must disclose publicly the compensation packages of their five highest-paid executives. Our analysis focused on the CEO “pay slice” – that is, the CEO’s share of the aggregate compensation such firms award to their top five executives.

We found that the pay slice of CEOs has been increasing over time. Not only has compensation of the top five executives been increasing, but CEOs have been capturing an increasing proportion of it. The average CEO’s pay slice is about 35%, so that the CEO typically earns more than twice the average pay received by the other top four executives. Moreover, we found that the CEO’s pay slice is related to many aspects of firms’ performance and behavior.

To begin, firms with a higher CEO pay slice generate lower value for their investors. Relative to their industry peers, such firms have lower market capitalization for a given book value. The ratio of market value to book value, termed “Tobin’s Q” by financial economists, is a standard measure for evaluating how effectively firms use the capital they have.