Business

Canada's top 100 CEOs have already earned more than average Canadian will all year

By 10:09 a.m. on January 2nd, Canada's highest paid CEOs had made as much money as the average Canadian will earn all year, according to a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Highest paid chief executives' salaries on average 227 times that of average worker

Donald Walker, chief executive officer of Magna International Inc., is among Canada's highest paid CEOs. A new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that by 10:09 a.m. on January 2 Canada's top paid CEOs earned more than the average Canadian will all year. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

By 10:09 a.m. on January 2nd, Canada's highest paid CEOs had made as much money as the average Canadian will earn all year, according to a new report.

In its annual report on CEO compensation, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) found the gap between CEO compensation and average worker salary "growing larger and more difficult to rationalize." The 100 highest paid chief executives earned an average of 227 times more than the average worker in 2018, the most recent time period for which data is available.

The average individual income in Canada was $52,061 in 2018, but each of the top 100 CEOs on the S&P/TSX Composite Index earned an average of $11.8 million. That beat the previous record for top executive salary, which averaged $10.4 million in 2016.

"Just a decade ago you'd have to wait until after lunch [on Jan. 2] before they'd made your salary," said David Macdonald, senior economist with the CCPA, a non-profit think-tank that focuses on issues including social justice and economic equality. 

"The trend is pretty clear that there is no stopping CEO pay increases, and there doesn't seem to be any indication also on the other side that worker pay is going to start going up somehow much more rapidly than inflation."

CEO compensation continues to grow exponentially faster than average pay. While the average Canadian worker saw their pay rise 2.6 per cent between 2017 and 2018, keeping just ahead of inflation, top CEOs received an 18 per cent pay boost in that same time period.

Over the course of a decade, the report found that average-income workers saw their pay grow 24 per cent between 2008 and 2018. But during that same 10 years, Canada's top 100 CEOs got a 61 per cent raise.

Are sky-high salaries needed to retain CEOs?

Those in favour of CEO pay increases often say the big pay bumps are required to keep CEOs from fleeing to greener pastures.

But the CCPA found there doesn't seem to be much poaching happening in C-suites here. The report said 76 per cent of the top 100 CEOs were promoted internally, not recruited into their roles. They've spent an average of 18 years with their current company, said Macdonald.

"They don't flit about from company to company.... They understand the companies they work for, the industry, their competitors, the products that they sell, and that's what makes them suitable for the CEO chair. It's not just because they happened to have been a CEO someplace else."

It's actually quite difficult even for shareholders within companies to restrict CEO pay.- David Macdonald, senior economist, CCPA

If that's the case, who is signing off on these big pay bumps?

A small circle near the top, said Macdonald.

"It's actually quite difficult even for shareholders within companies to restrict CEO pay," he said. "Oftentimes there's quite a tight relationship between the CEO, the board of directors for the company, the consultant that comes in to recommend what the CEO should make. These folks all know each other."

Possible policy changes

Some of the biggest bucks in CEO compensation come in the form of stocks and stock options.

Macdonald said this means that astronomical executive pay is subsidized through the tax system, which taxes these earnings at a much lower rate. That's because both stock options and the stocks themselves are subject to tax loopholes that average workers can't access, he said.

Although changes to tax law have been promised since 2015, Macdonald said he's optimistic there will be changes to loopholes in 2020. Federal Liberals made a 2019 election campaign promise to curb or close these loopholes, and based on information shared in the fall fiscal update, seem poised to make good in the spring budget, said Macdonald. 

"It's booked into the fiscal framework now, so it is something they will either have to go through with or pretty explicitly back down from."

About the Author

Brandie Weikle is a senior writer for CBC News based in Toronto. She's a long-time magazine and newspaper editor and podcast host with specialities in family life, health and the workplace. You can reach her at brandie.weikle@cbc.ca.