Growing inequality has been one of the most salient features of the US economy over the last 40 years. As depicted in Figure 1, nearly all of this growth in inequality is driven by the rapid increase in top incomes (Alvaredo et al. 2017, Piketty and Saez 2003). The share of income accruing to the top 1% of earners has risen from less than 10% in the 1970s to over 20% today. Despite important policy implications, the causes of this growth in top incomes remains an open and controversial question.
Figure 1 US income shares
Notes: Kernel-weighted local polynomial smoothed data from World Wealth and Income Database (WID).
A variety of explanations for this rapid growth in top incomes have been proposed, including growing firm size (Gabaix and Landier 2008), new technology (Kaplan and Rauh 2013), the market for superstars (Rosen 1981), poor governance (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2001), and changes in top tax rates (Piketty et al. 2014). Despite the common perception that globalisation has played a role in the growth of top incomes,1 there has been relatively little work studying this channel. Our recent paper aims to fill this gap (Keller and Olney 2017). Our findings complement recent research showing that rising import competition has adversely affected the low end of the income distribution (Autor et al. 2013, Pierce and Schott 2016). Given that the vast majority of income inequality is driven by growth in top incomes, focusing on exports and executive compensation seems especially relevant and important.
Broadly, there are two channels through which globalisation could affect top incomes. First, market returns to executive talent may be rising with globalisation. Globalisation increases the market size of firms and may increase the difficulty of the executive’s job. Thus, as the importance of top superstar executive’s increase in the global economy, their compensation rises accordingly.
Second, globalisation could affect top incomes for reasons unrelated to market returns to talent. The firm may be in an industry that happens to be expanding globally for reasons outside of the executive’s control, but the executive is nonetheless reaping the rewards of this fortunate turn of events. Alternatively, perhaps the sheer size and complexity of exporting firms enhance the opportunity for executives to disproportionately benefit in poor governance and rent-capture environments.
Using a large dataset with detailed compensation information for US executives over the years 1993-2013, our results confirm that firm size, technology, and poor governance all have contributed to the growth in top incomes. Importantly we find that, qualitatively, exports are just as important at explaining the growth in executive compensation as the other more common explanations.
Does globalisation’s impact on executive compensation reflect increasing market returns to talent and ability (which may be less objectionable) or non-market returns such as luck and rent-capture? To isolate the latter channel, we identify (using an instrumental variable approach) growth in exports that has nothing to do with the executive’s talent or actions. We find that a 10% export shock leads to a 2% increase in executive compensation (see Figure 2). The fact that exogenous export shocks significantly increase executive compensation provides evidence that globalisation does indeed affect top incomes through non-market channels.
Additional results disentangle the luck and rent-capture channels. As illustrated in Figure 2, executive bonuses are more sensitive to export shocks than total compensation. Since bonuses are by nature relatively discretionary and conducive to rent-capture, this result not only reinforces the role of non-market channels but also suggests that rent-capture is important. Furthermore, we examine whether the impact of exogenous export shocks on executive bonuses is stronger in settings that are prone to rent-capture activities. Figure 2 shows that export shocks lead to an even larger increase in executive bonuses in poor governance environments characterised by insider board relationships. Thus, there is evidence that it hasn’t only been the ‘invisible hand’ of the market that has contributed to the increase in top US incomes.
Figure 2 Impact of globalisation on executive compensation
Overall, our findings indicate that globalisation has played a more central role in the rapid growth of executive compensation and US inequality than previously thought, and that rent-capture is an important part of this story. However, these findings should not be interpreted as a rationale for protectionist policies, since globalisation has also generated large increases in standards of living. The key question for policymakers is to devise ways to address the distributional implications of globalisation, such as those identified in this column, without compromising aggregate welfare gains.
Alvaredo, F, T Atkinson, T Piketty, E Saez, and G Zucman (2017) The World Top Incomes Database.
Autor, D H, D Dorn and G H Hanson (2013), "The China Syndrome: Local labor market effects of import competition in the United States", American Economic Review 103(6): 2121-68.
Bertrand, M and S Mullainathan (2001), "Are CEOs rewarded for luck? The ones without principles are", The Quarterly Journal of Economics 116(3): 901-932.
Gabaix, X and A Landier (2008), "Why has CEO pay increased so much?", The Quarterly Journal of Economics 123(1): 49-100.
Kaplan, S N and J Rauh (2013), "It's the market: The broad-based rise in the return to top talent", The Journal of Economic Perspectives 27(3): 35-56.
Keller, W and W W Olney (2017), “Globalization and executive compensation”, CEPR Discussion Paper No 12026.
NYT Editorial board (2016) “Jobs and trade on the campaign trail”, The New York Times, 2 April .
Pierce, J R and P K Schott (2016), “The surprisingly swift decline of US manufacturing employment", American Economic Review 106(7): 1632-62.
Piketty, T and E Saez (2003), "Income inequality in the United States, 1913-1998", The Quarterly Journal of Economics 118(1): 1-41.
Piketty, T, E Saez and S Stantcheva (2014), "Optimal taxation of top labor incomes: A tale of three elasticities", American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 6(1): 230-271.
Rosen, S (1981), "The economics of superstars", The American Economic Review 71(5): 845-858.
 “American policy has allowed the winners to keep most of the spoils of trade and has given the losers crumbs. This has exacerbated income inequality by raising the profits of big corporations and the salaries of executives and other white collar professionals while leaving blue-collar and lower-skilled workers poorer” (New York Times Editorial Board 2016).