Since September 2008 executive bonuses have been criticized as excessive, unfair, and unnecessary. Case in point: Last week in a public speech President Obama referred to executive bonuses as being “obscene.”

Are executive bonuses really a problem? Or just a way for politicians to gain public approval?

Consider the traditional return on investment model: the higher the risk, the higher the return. This also applies to job compensation: the higher the risk (i.e. responsibility), the higher the return (i.e. income and bonuses). It follows that an executive’s income and bonus reflects the high level of responsibility and commitment to the company required at the senior management level.

Xavier Gabaix and Augustin Landier, economics professors at New York University’s Stern School of Business, investigated the increase in the American CEO pay since 1980 and found that executives are not overpaid as most people on Capitol Hill think:

[…] the sixfold increase in American CEO pay from 1980 to 2003 is almost wholly explained by the roughly sixfold increase in market capitalization of big U.S. companies over the same period. (Asset values have increased sixfold because both corporate earnings and the price-to-earnings ratio investors are willing to tolerate have increased by factors of 2.5.) The trend lines of market capitalization and executive payouts rose and dipped in near-perfect tandem.

In a free market society, executives that bring value are rewarded handsomely, while those who do not bring value are replaced. But when government tampers with market forces, efficient levels of incomes and bonuses are skewed. The result is an economy that is misguided by fabricated, artificial signals.