Sign Up

The Measure of a Man

What does Alan Greenspan's wealth say about CEO compensation?

July 17, 2002

What does Alan Greenspan's wealth say about CEO compensation?

He has been hailed as a wizard, a magician and a master of the universe. And certainly, with his unflappable style, he has managed to steer the U.S. economy through amazing ups and worrisome downs.

The fact that, amidst all the stock market hype, he had the courage to spoil the party with his talk of "irrational exuberance" is his key ticket to credibility today.

History will record his careful stewardship of the U.S. economy — both through the lows of recession and the highs of the 1990s boom.

Recently, it was time for Mr. Greenspan to report on his personal wealth. As is the annual custom for top-ranking U.S. officials, the Fed Chairman had to provide a rather detailed overview of his personal finances.

This helps reassure the public that senior officials are above the fray — and do not manipulate public policy for their own personal gain.

As for Mr. Greenspan, the public report had reassuring things to offer for any man. His assets are mainly held in the form of Treasury bills because he wants to be sure that he faces no conflicts of interest. They were valued between $ 4.2 and $8.7 million.

That is quite a nice pile of money to call one's own. And probably all but the most ardent socialists around the world would say that, after an active and very successful work life spent in the public and the private sector, Mr. Greenspan may deserve that wealth.

And yet, from another point of view, Mr. Greenspan is almost a pauper. His wealth just does not stack up against that of most of the other business luminaries in the United States today.

Despite his excellent macroeconomic stewardship, Chairman Greenspan never had years where his income was anywhere near the income levels of major CEOs today.

In fact, such leaders would not refer to Mr. Greenspan's as having "wealth." Consider Disney's Mike Eisner — who pulled down as much as $590 million in 1999 (and saw his pay "fall" to just $50 million in 2000 and $72 million in 2001).

Or the $706 million in stock options that Larry Ellis of Oracle essentially awarded himself in 2001. The list goes on and on.
Just ask yourself: What's wrong with this picture? It is obviously not that Mr. Greenspan is not richer. It is understood that public service has other rewards.

No, it is the loss of any sense of proportion. Why should the CEO of Mickey Mouse make about 100 times Mr. Greenspan's net worth in a single year?

And why was protesting such egregious forms of compensation left to union leaders? They have been among the few highlighting the absurdity of CEO compensation reaching the level of over 500 times average company worker salaries.

The standard argument, of course, is that these business leaders were taking extraordinary risks — which justified high levels of compensation. But that is precisely the point where the example of Mr. Greenspan is so instructive.

Even the firebrand Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives would have a hard time branding Chairman Greenspan as a risk-averse "government bureaucrat."

In fact, there probably are few jobs to be had in the United States that are more fraught with difficult expectations and challenges than is Mr. Greenspan's.

And that is why, in our view, he provides such a good mark for what's wrong with the United States today. At the top levels of business, where the measure of a man (and woman) often remains purely financial, Mr. Greenspan offers a baseline for realistic wealth creation.

After all, the ultimate master of business and financial markets is satisfied with wealth of a few million dollars. It takes a lot of chutzpah for others to claim that they provide more value than the highly successful chairman of the Federal Reserve.