FORTUNE -- What should boards pay CEOs for anyway? A new study raises questions about the structure and size of CEO pay that deserve answers -- and fast.
An analysis from the Institute for Policy Studies' (IPS) released earlier this month shows that CEOs will reap huge personal moolah if a fiscal cliff campaign some of them are undertaking is successful. According to the report, the Fix the Debt campaign "has raised $60 million and recruited more than 80 CEOs."
The paper highlights three elements of the campaign's agenda: repatriation of foreign profits tax free, maintenance of the Bush tax cuts, and offsets through reductions to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.
The IPS report explains why CEOs could be personally interested in the campaign's proposal to rob citizen Peter to pay CEO Paul. Jon Romano, a spokesperson for Fix the Debt, did not respond to requests for comment.
The IPS study shows that GE (GE), Microsoft (MSFT), Merck (MRK), and Cisco (CSCO) have nearly $250 billion in offshore income. By allowing on-shoring tax free, as the Fix the Debt campaign advocates, the analysis shows that the government's deficits could increase by $85 billion while corporate earnings would swell by a similar amount -- just for those four companies. Like many other firms, the annual proxy filings of GE, Microsoft, Merck, and Cisco cite corporate earnings as one of the primary justifications for CEO bonuses. Some, but of course not all, of any earnings benefit to the company would likely flow to each CEO's personal bottom line.
Extensions of the Bush tax breaks enhance CEO net worth more directly. According to the IPS analysis, five of the CEOs involved in the campaign earned $378 million in 2011 taxable pay. With compensation that large, assistance from the Bush tax plan saved them (and cost the country) $30 million in government contributions last year alone.
Meanwhile the proposal to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would help make up the difference for the lost revenues in the other two recommendations.
Clearly, those cuts could harm corporations down the road by dampening the spending of consumers who receive Social Security or are kept alive and well because of Medicare or Medicaid (and, in some cases, both programs). These cuts could negatively affect the whole economy, not just one company. That seems like something CEOs might want to avoid.
But because of the perverse nature in which today's incentive systems operate, any negative economic consequences could end up personally benefiting CEOs. As a general matter, boards neither quantify nor hold CEOs accountable for their solo or collective influence on poor economic conditions. So CEOs get a free pass there. But boards often do consider the health of the economy when they set goals for their chief executives. If the economy weakened, CEOs would likely have lower performance hurdles to clear. Further, economic volatility could actually improve paydays for CEOs by lowering the prices of stocks and options at the time of award. If prices drop, CEOs often get larger pools of stock and options because their value is depressed. When prices subsequently rise, CEOs cash in. More
As the year ends, so does Capitol Hill's most partisan session ever. Who's to say the next one will be any better?
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