With another year of QE almost in the history books, we were looking for some great examples of how wealth disparity in the US between the pinnacle of the "wealth pyramid", shown below and everyone else.
We got it thanks to a study by the Center for Effective Government and Institute for Policy Studies called "A Tale of Two Retirements", which found that company-sponsored retirement assets of just 100 CEOs are equal to those of more than 40 percent of American families, roughly 50 million families or 116 million people.
Here are the findings which indicate a wealth divide so wide it could make Marie Antoinette blush:
- The 100 largest CEO retirement funds are worth a combined $4.9 billion. That’s equal to the entire retirement account savings of 41 percent of American families - more than 50 million families and more than 116 million people.
- On average, the CEOs’ nest eggs are worth more than $49.3 million, enough to generate a $277,686 monthly retirement check for the rest of their lives.
- David Novak of YUM Brands had the largest retirement nest egg in the Fortune 500 in 2014, with $234 million, while hundreds of thousands of his Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC employees have no company retirement assets whatsoever. Novak transitioned from CEO to Executive Chairman in 2015.
The rich are not only richer, they are also legally allowed to pay far less taxes than most mere mortals: Fortune 500 CEOs have $3.2 billion in special tax-deferred compensation accounts that are exempt from the annual contribution limits imposed on ordinary 401(k)s.
- Fortune 500 CEOs saved $78 million on their 2014 tax bills by putting $197 million more in these tax-deferred accounts than they could have if they were subject to the same rules as other workers. These special accounts grow tax-free until the executives retire and begin to withdraw the funds.
- The Fortune 500 CEOs had more in their company-sponsored deferred compensation accounts than 53.8 percent of American families had in their deferred compensation accounts.
- Glenn Renwick, CEO of The Progressive Corporation, transferred $26.2 million of his pay into his deferred compensation account last year, the most of any Fortune 500 CEO. That reduced his income tax bill by more than $10 million in 2014.
Remember that not only their year-end comp, but much of their retirement funds, are linked to stock performance thresholds, so the CEOs are explicitly motivated to boost their stock price. This means engaging in countless stock buybacks. However, when the debt spigot is put on hiatus and cash in must equal cash out, it means firing thousands workers. And if not firing, then merely reducing defined benefit plans should suffice.
- Last year 18 percent of private sector workers were covered by a defined benefit pension, which guarantees monthly payments, down from 35 percent in the early 1990s. In contrast, 52 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are covered by a company-sponsored pension.
- Nearly half of all working age Americans have no access to any retirement plan at work. The median balance in a 401(k) plan at the end of 2013 was $18,433, enough to generate a monthly retirement check of $104.
- Of workers aged 50-64, 29 percent have no defined benefit pension or retirement savings in a 401(k) or IRA. These workers will be wholly dependent on Social Security, which pays an average benefit of $1,223 per month.
It gets worse, and more tragic at the same time, because according to BlackRock, Americans and especially Millenials just have too much cash. No really, this is what Blackrock said:
While Americans said that they ideally should have 33% of their net worth in cash instruments, they admit to holding 65%–far too high an allocation to achieve their retirement goals, given low interest rates and the diminishing purchasing power of their cash related to the pressures of inflation. The current asset allocation of American portfolios according to the survey includes 65% in cash, 18% in equities, 6% in bonds, 4% in property, 2% in alternatives, 5% listed as “other.”
Well, perhaps Americans are simply not looking forward to buying what Wall Street and central banks have to sell just ahead of the ritual rug pulling that wipes out 50% of the market every few years. And then there is the question of just how much cash said Millennials have.
Here it the problem according to the Two Retirements report:
Younger Americans face a particularly difficult time saving for retirement. More than half of millennials have not yet begun to save for retirement, as they lack access to good jobs, and have staggering amounts of student loan debt. Americans under 40 today have saved 7 percent less for retirement than people in that age group were able to save in 1983.
So sorry Blackrock, but your feeble mind games will not work on us, even though we realize you would love for everyone to buy your flash-crashy ETFs. The reality is that Americans simply do not have any leftover funds, period, which to fund a retirement, be it invested in cash or BlackRock triple inverse ETFs.
CEOs, however, have nothing to worry about. Not only do they have Congress in their back pocket, they also get preferred treatment by the IRS.
On top of their massive annual compensation, CEOs of most large U.S. corporations have amassed gilded retirement fortunes. We analyzed SEC filings of publicly held Fortune 500 firms and found that the 100 largest CEO nest eggs were worth a combined $4.9 billion at the end of 2014. That sum is equal to the entire retirement account savings of 41 percent of American families (50 million families in total).
While the guaranteed monthly retirement check until death is a thing of the past for the vast majority of Americans, more than half of Fortune 500 CEOs receive company-sponsored pension plans. Their firms are allowed to deduct the cost of these often exorbitant plans from their taxes, even if they have cut worker pensions or never offered them at all.
Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Fortune 500 firms also have set up special tax-deferred compensation accounts for their executives. These are similar to the 401(k) plans that some Americans receive through their employers. But ordinary workers face strict limits on how much pre-tax income they can invest each year in these plans, while top executives do not. These privileged few are free to shelter unlimited amounts of compensation in these special pots, where their money can grow, tax-free, until they retire and start spending it.
The CEO-worker retirement divide turns our country’s already extreme income divide into an even wider economic chasm. New analysis by the Government Accountability Office shows that 29 percent of workers approaching retirement (aged 50-65) have neither a pension nor retirement savings in a 401(k) or Individual Retirement Account (IRA). According to a study by the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Research at the New School, 55 percent of those aged 50-64 will be forced to rely almost solely on Social Security (which averages $1,233 a month).
And so on.
And because we know that readers are mostly interessted in names, here is a selection.
First, the 10 Largest CEO Retirement Funds
Second, the 10 Largest CEO Deferred Compensation Accounts.
A quick primer on these:
In 2014, 198 Fortune 500 CEOs invested a combined $197 million more of their pre-tax income in these plans than they would have been able to invest if they’d been subject to the maximum $24,000 cap that applies to ordinary workers. If they had been subject to this limit, they would’ve owed the U.S. Treasury $78 million more in income taxes last year.
The funds in these special tax-deferred accounts grow tax-free for the rest of the executives’ lives or until they are withdrawn. At that point, the executives make a one-time tax payment at an ordinary income rate. The Joint Committee on Taxation has produced a useful analysis of the financial benefits of tax deferral from the compounding of investment returns.
Executives can also choose where they live when they receive this compensation, including in a low-tax state. For example, CEOs who move after they retire from relatively high-tax New York to Florida, which has no state income tax, would pay substantially lower state taxes on this deferred compensation. These accounts can even be passed on to the executive’s heirs, allowing our country’s extreme wealth concentration to be passed on to future generations. These rules are contributing to the perpetuation of a new aristocracy.
And third, a quick look at the pension funding status at the corporations with the largest CEO retirement accounts:
Finally, here is the full breakdown of Fortune 500 CEOs' retirement assets.