Are CEOs Overpaid? by Gary M. Galles

Are corporate managers and CEOs overpaid?

Many politicians rail against “overpaid” corporate managers. But these attacks overlook the issues of risk and uncertainty.

Workers agree to compensation before performing their work. Consequently, their compensation reflects not a known value but their expected value when arrangements are made.

Managers who turn out more productive than expected will have been underpaid, those less productive than expected will have been overpaid. But examples of the latter don’t prove managers are generally overpaid.

As performance reveals productivity, competition will also bid compensation of superior managers up and inferior managers down. And we must consider the present value of that entire stream, not a given year’s results, to evaluate managers’ productivity versus pay.

No manager is always right, but not every mistake is proof that they’re overpaid. They are paid for superior, not flawless, judgment — fewer mistakes, but not no mistakes.

That is another reason top managers of large enterprises will be very highly compensated. A 1% higher probability of being right on a $1 billion bet is very valuable, and even more so for a $10 billion bet. But even the best will err sometimes, so mistakes don’t prove shareholders are overpaying for managerial judgment.

This is part of a series of micro-blogs by Professor Galles responding to frequently asked questions on economic issues. If you have a question, emailAnythingPeaceful@FEE.org. 

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