Business / Industries

Corporations in US come under fire for paying CEOs too much

(Agencies) Updated: 2015-07-17 08:26

Companies in the United States often pay their chief executive officers far too much compared with their lowest-paid workers.

Boards of directors seem to compete against each other when it comes to compensating their top executives. That harsh critique actually comes from one of Corporate America's friends.

"It would be healthier for our society if CEOs were paid less," said Michael Kagan, who oversees about $9 billion in assets as a senior portfolio manager at ClearBridge Investments in New York.

"You have this arms race, where people look at peers to see the pay is fair, so pay is raised year after year."

Even though Kagan's investments, such as the ClearBridge Appreciation Fund, generally vote to back management on executive pay, he worries the comparisons companies use to set compensation have helped drive rewards to levels he called "enormous".

His comments mark a rare exception to the stance of most mutual fund executives to not discuss executive pay in detail.

Still, that could be changing as years of debating compensation rates at US companies make professional investors more comfortable talking about the subject, according to Stephen Brown, a corporate governance consultant, and former head of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you see more portfolio managers start to talk about it as they get more used to it," Brown said, adding that Kagan's remarks on CEO pay were the most critical he could recall from a mainstream fund manager.

"Plus, it's easier to talk about CEO pay when companies are well run," Brown said. "What he's voicing is this reality that when you perform, people have less to complain about with pay."

Critics say the funds industry could do more to restrain CEO compensation. That view is shared by Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts congressman in the US and an architect of the widely held advisory votes on pay.

Median salaries for CEOs of S&P 500 companies reached $10.3 million last year from $7 million in 2009, according to Equilar, a California-based company that provides information about executive compensation packages.

With $118 billion under management, ClearBridge is the largest equity unit of Baltimore asset manager LeggMason Inc. Kagan said his comments on pay equality reflect his personal views, though he also helps set ClearBridge's proxy voting policies.

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