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Why Donald Trump Could Spell Doom for CEO Pay Transparency

Image: Trump holds an event with supporters at Pawleys Plantation Golf and Country Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds an event with supporters at Pawleys Plantation Golf and Country Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina Feb. 19. JONATHAN ERNST / Reuters

Outsized CEO pay is an issue coming under increasing scrutiny, and Donald Trump has already promised to do away with legislation that would require companies to be more transparent.

However, compensation experts say an executive branch filled with corporate titans could benefit the relative few atop the corporate ladder at the expense of everyone else.

The implicit assumption is that these CEOs will look out for their own.

Furthermore, because Trump is one of those CEOs himself, it might very well "put a halo effect around the whole issue [of executive pay] for a while," said John Challenger, CEO of executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Repeal of Dodd-Frank?

"I think the first year will be a true measure of who he is as a policy person," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

"We don't really know how it's going to play out. I'm sure all the CEOs and people he's got in his administration are going to be anti-regulatory," he predicted.

Starting next year, the Securities and Exchange Commission planned to require companies to disclose how much their CEO makes as a ratio of median employee pay, giving shareholders — and ordinary Americans — a window into how companies treat their CEO compared to the rank-and-file workers, but the future of that rule is in limbo.

Related: Trump's Cabinet Picks Have a Combined Wealth of Almost $15 Billion

Donald Trump, although he railed against fat CEO pay packages during his campaign, calling them "disgraceful," also vowed to "dismantle" the Dodd-Frank Act, which provided the mandate for the new SEC rule.

"I do think the Dodd-Frank ruling had a lot of companies thinking about this more specifically," said Lydia Frank, vice president at compensation company PayScale.

Fat Cat Tax

At least one municipality isn't waiting for the federal government to tackle the issue. The city of Portland, Oregon is undertaking an effort to rein in — or at least capitalize on — excessive CEO pay with a novel tax plan the city council voted on earlier this month.

Companies doing business in the city with a CEO-to-median-worker pay ratio of more than 100 will be subject to an additional 10 percent tax, which climbs to 25 percent for companies whose CEOs make 250 times as much as a typical employee.

"So far we haven't seen other municipalities actively pursue legislation like this," said Brian Kropp, human resources practice leader at CEB. But he added that other places might try something similar if Portland's experiment — which is expected to raise up to $3.5 million a year for city coffers — is a success.

Blue-state municipalities in coastal states would be the most likely adopters, Kropp said.

Historically, CEOs earned about 20 times as much as a typical worker, but that number crept up, gradually at first and then more rapidly within the last two decades. A PayScale analysis of CEO pay found that the average corporate chief earns about 70 times what the median worker makes.

Other estimates put the disparity even higher. A Glassdoor analysis of CEO pay at S&P 500 companies found that the average corporate chief earned 204 times median worker pay in 2014. The Economic Policy Institute calculated that the typical CEO made 276 times more than a worker at the median last year, although it did find that this is actually an improvement: It's down from 302 the year before. Organized labor giant AFL-CIO's "executive paywatch" calculates that the average CEO to median worker pay ratio was 331 in 2013.

"What we're seeing, historically, is that ratio is still getting bigger," Kropp said.

For the future, many expect the SEC's push for increased transparency to be scuttled, in keeping with Donald Trump's promise to roll back regulations of all types, but this might not wind up letting CEOs off the hook entirely.

"Their expectation is that the Dodd-Frank legislation will be changed somehow and a lot of them at this point believe that part of the legislation will be taken out," Kropp said of his corporate clients.

"The other reason why they believe now that it's likely to be pulled out is when you look at the cabinet Trump is putting together, there are a lot of billionaires, a lot of CEOs," Kropp said.

"It seems to me that the pressure is going to abate. There's going to be less scrutiny," Challenger predicted.

Keeping It Quiet

But even if companies can avoid the spotlight of regulatory scrutiny on CEO pay, public scrutiny and bad press are another story.

I think there will continue to be an enormous amount of focus on CEO pay," Kropp said. "They still need to figure out the answer to this question," he said of the pay ratio.

With analytics firms, think tanks and other organizations already crunching the numbers — and often coming up with unflattering results — companies might decide they would be better off managing that data themselves.

There are any number of variables that can come into play when trying to measure CEO versus median worker pay. On the CEO side, someone has to determine criteria like how stock awards and other non-cash compensation is valued. On the worker side, the person running the numbers needs to determine factors like if global or only domestic employees are included, if and how independent contractor labor is counted.

"If that part is repealed from Dodd-Frank, the problem doesn't go away," Kropp said. "If you're not ready to manage that conversation, you're letting other people pick the ratios and pick the data," he said.

PayScale's Frank even suggested the new administration might reconsider. "I don't imagine people are going to shove this issue to the side. It's related to a lot of the things people are talking about more broadly, these concepts for fairness and equality," she said.

"Trump certainly ran on this issue of people who felt disenfranchised… If he's seen to align with the tops of those companies, rather than the workers, I don't know how that's going to play out," she said.