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July 30, 2012 3:33 PM

Business, Retail

Money Men: Executive Compensation

How much is too much? It's a tricky question when it comes to executive compensation....

How much is too much?

It's a tricky question when it comes to executive compensation.

Everyone has their own internal meter that causes them to laugh out loud, or sigh, or cry a little when they hear some executive pulled in X million last year.

The disparity in compensation is plain to see.

The Census Bureau estimates that a person with a bachelor's degree will earn something like $1.6 million over their work life (about $2.4 million for white men on the high side, or $1.1 million for Hispanic women on the low side).

There were 67 people at U.S. public fashion brands and retailers who made more than $5 million in 2011.

So at the very least, every executive on that list pulled in what the average college-educated worker could expect to make during two-and-a-half lifetimes.

There's something in the spirit that should reject that as outright, completely and utterly crazy.

Then again, the numbers are not only very large, they're pretty fuzzy.

Much of the compensation for fashion's biggest earners comes in the form of stock or options that may or may not pay out. The idea is that if the executives work hard and do a good job, the stock and options will be worth more by the time they get their hands on them.

In a perfect world, the executive is brilliant and hardworking, the stock flies and they get millions while shareholders get billions. That seems fair, right?

These guys -- they are overwhelmingly guys -- work hard. Anything approaching work-life balance has to be hard to pull off. They are nose to the grindstone all the time, on planes and on the road, constantly engaged in big, heavy-duty decision making.

And there are only so many people who seem to be a credible candidate for corporate titan and they already have jobs that pay well. When a company is looking for a new leader, they have to find one of them and give them more money, and executive compensation skyrockets.

Having written about fashion's corporate honchos for more than a decade, I've found there are two main reactions to executive compensation. They're both wrong.

The first, from let's call it the executives' side, is that this money they're getting is not real, it's paper money and it's inflated by the Securities and Exchange Commission's reporting regulations and so on. If the stock awards and options are worth nothing, then I'm sure it would be nothing for the executives to sign them over to a charity or donate them to worker pension funds or otherwise disavow them.

The second reaction, from Average Joes, is that none of these guys deserve it. And when someone says that, I wonder, would they take the big paycheck themselves?
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