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.