Pay and Wealth Disparity: Still our greatest social challenge

By Frank Sherman

Sister Sue Ernster’s (Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration) proposal on racial equity & starting pay at the Walmart AGM earlier this week obtained strong shareholder support for a first-time resolution (12.5% of total shares or 27% of independent shares voted). Congratulations to Sue and the many ICCR co-filers.

I’m reminded of Father Mike Crosby’s 2015 campaign on income disparity. At that time, President Obama called the growing pay & wealth gap in our country “the greatest social challenge of our time“…. and it hasn’t gotten better since then. We didn’t get very far back then after the SEC’s sided with the companies, permitting them to omit our proposal from the proxy based on the “ordinary business” exclusion.

Starting in 2011, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 required companies to include disclosure of the total compensation of the top 5 paid executives in their annual proxy statements. Shareholders are allowed to cast a non-binding advisory vote for or against these pay packages (“say-on-pay”). Very few companies “failed” their say-on-pay vote in recent years. A failure occurs if the company does not obtain majority support from shareholders for the executive compensation proposal.

The tide may be shifting. Twice as many say-on-pay proposals failed this year as in previous years, including some companies that had never had a failure in these resolutions. As You Sow’s Rosanna Landis Weaver does great work digging through the fine print of the “Compensation Discussion and Analysis” section of each company’s proxy statement with an annual report on the 100 Most Overpaid CEOs. A recent NEI article on CEO compensation (A Promising Start To The Challenge Of Excessive CEO Pay) notes that support for pay packages among S&P 500 firms fell to an average of 87%, down 3 percentage points from 2020 and 2019, and down 4 points from 2016 to 2018. It references a report from the Institute for Policy Studies (Pandemic Pay Plunder: Low-Wage Workers Lost Hours, Jobs, and Lives. Their Employers Bent the Rules – to Pump up CEO Paychecks) which found that 51 of the S&P 500 firms with the lowest median worker wage revised their pay rules in 2020, so that median worker pay fell 2%, while CEO pay rose—by 29%.

Investors pushed corporations to tie their pay packages to stock performance (…to better align management pay with investor returns) in the early ’90s. Little did they know that this would be used by companies to successively ratchet up CEO, and as a result, the rest of management’s, comp packages every year to a level that makes U.S. CEOs stand out on the global stage.

The Dodd–Frank Act also required companies to disclose the ratio of CEO compensation to the median compensation of their employees. The rule has only been in effect since 2017, but the SEC allows companies “substantial flexibility” in the calculation of the ratio, making it difficult for investors and society to make meaningful comparisons.

Of course, CEO’s know that their pay relative to the median pay of their workers is out of control. But even if they wanted to change this (and I’m not sure many “want” to do so), they are reluctant to be a first mover on restructuring pay because it would “negatively impact retention and make them less competitive”.

As we complete the next draft of SGI’s strategic plan and think about our engagement focus for the 2022 season (which starts this summer), I believe pay disparity has to be high on our list. I hope you concur.

An eyebrow raising statistic

 

Annually, Oxfam, in conjunction with Forbes magazine and its global rich list, publishes a report on how many of the world’s wealthiest are needed to match the wealth of the bottom half of the planet. In recent years, as market values have soared and wealth has concentrated evermore increasingly, the number has shrunk from 80 wealthiest in 2015 to just eight men holding the same wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people in 2017.

Recently, researchers from the Institute for Policy Studies refined the statistics to reflect the U.S. alone. Their conclusions were eyebrow raising:

It can be hard to grasp just how much money is concentrated in just a few hands in our lopsided economy today. But here’s a start: The richest three people in the United States — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — together have more wealth than the entire bottom half of the country combined.

To put an even finer point on it: That’s three people versus about 160 million people.

To really comprehend just how insane the wealth concentration has become, consider Bezos, the head of Amazon. Worth about $90 billion, he recently was declared the richest man in the world. In October alone, his wealth jumped by $10 billion — or about $4 million per second.

The authors made a particular point that the wealthiest of the group, Jeff Bezos, pays some of his warehouse workers as little as $12.84 an hour.

The report initially appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and more information can be found on the IPS website.

Priests of the Sacred Heart continue to challenge TJX’s executive pay policies

The TJX Companies, which includes well-known discount chains of TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Home Goods, is the leading off-price apparel and home fashions retailer in the U.S. …and worldwide. They claim 40 years of sales and earnings growth to the satisfaction of their shareholders. But not all shareholders are happy. “TJX maintains one of the largest pay gaps in America,” said Mark Peters, Director of Justice, Peace and Reconciliation for the Priests of the Sacred Heart. “As public scrutiny of the gap between CEO and worker pay increases, TJX may be risking the health of its labor force and the reputation of its brand.”

Mark filed a shareholder resolution with TJX concerning their executive pay policies and the widening pay gap with their workers for the third year in a row (see proxy memo). “The company’s proxy states that developing and retaining talent is a key component of their continued success. But this attention should not be limited to their executives. Their Associates’ pay has stagnated while executive compensation packages continue to escalate. Long term, this hurts the company and society.”

CEO pay has grew by almost 1000% over the past 40 years, greatly outpacing the growth in the cost of living, the productivity of the economy, and the stock market. This disproves the claim that the growth in CEO pay reflects the performance of the company, the value of its stock, or the ability of the CEO to do anything but disproportionately raise the amount of his pay (Economic Policy Institute).

Beginning in 2018, a Dodd-Frank Act provision requires companies to report the ratio of the CEO’s total compensation and that of their median employee. While the Trump administration is reviewing this requirement as too burdensome, Mark believes that it is not enough. “Shareholders need a historic view of this ratio and board’s informed view on whether the CEO-to-worker pay gap comes at the expense of the health of the Company’s human capital and long term shareholder value.”

See also: Priests of the Sacred Heart_TJX Proposal 8- 2017_Memo

Investors with $3 Trillion in Assets Call for CEO-to-Worker Pay Ratio Disclosure

Seventh Generation Interfaith members Congregation of St. Agnes, Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Dana Investment Advisers,  Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order, Racine Dominican Sisters, Priests of the Sacred Heart (U.S. Province), School Sisters of St. Francis,  and Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, joined over 100 institutional investors in a letter to the SEC in support of maintaining existing CEO-to-worker pay ratio disclosure requirements.