Sometimes, there is a single bonkers statistic that encapsulates a troubling—but abstract—truth about the financial world. One example is when The New York Times calculated that there are fewer companies in the S&P 1500 run by women than there are companies run by men named John.
And now, courtesy of the Center for Effective Government, a nonprofit, and the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank, here is another: Together, 100 American CEOs have more saved up for retirement than 41 percent of American families combined.
The CEO with the largest nest egg on the report’s list was David C. Novak, the former chief of Yum Brands (which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell), and now its executive chairman. At last count, Novak had nearly $250 million in his retirement account, according to the report, which got its data on CEOs from companies’ SEC filings.
For the purposes of comparison, the average Yum employee had about $70,000 in his or her 401(k). That means the Novak’s retirement savings are more than 3,330 times the size of the typical Yum employee’s, which makes the ratio of average CEO pay to average worker pay—300:1—look relatively small.
The report, in a way, obscures the crisis at hand. The comparison it’s making—between 100 exceedingly well-paid executives and tens of millions of Americans—suggests intolerable corporate excess. As the report makes clear, on the CEO side of the equation, there are beefy retirement accounts flush with more than $4.5 billion. But on the typical-American side of the equation, there are a huge number of people who have practically nothing saved up—for all American households nearing retirement age, the median retirement-account balance is about $12,000. So, it’s not so much that these CEOs have a lot (they do) but that everyone else has next to nothing.
With that in mind, the fact that 100 CEOs have saved up more than 41 percent of Americans is stunning but not surprising. Over the last few decades, companies have moved away from providing their workers with pensions, which used to offer a degree of security in retirement. But during that transition, pensions weren’t reliably replaced with retirement-savings accounts, such that now only about 40 percent of private-sector American workers have any kind of employer-provided or subsidized retirement plan, such as a pension or a 401(k). Everyone else is on their own.