It's rare for a corporate titan to be forced to answer such an uncomfortable question during a live broadcast by a national cable-TV channel like CNBC. And it's a question that could potentially lead to an interesting answer -- since so few people know what it feels like.
Yet this is exactly what happened at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on Wednesday to Citigroup (C - Get Report) CEO Michael Corbat, who got $24 million last year, including incentive bonuses plus his $1.5 million annual salary. The House Financial Services Committee had invited CEOs of the biggest U.S. banks to testify on the changes that have taken place in the financial industry since the 2008 mortgage crisis.
Corbat isn't even the highest paid among Wall Street CEOs. At JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Get Report) , the largest U.S. bank, CEO Jamie Dimon got $31 million in 2018, while Brian Moynihan of Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) got $26.5 million.
But Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat, asked Corbat what it feels like to make so much money. The question came his way because -- according to an April 5 memo from Democratic staffers for the House Financial Services Committee, led by Maxine Waters of California -- Corbat makes so many more times what the bank's employees make.
Corbat's pay works out to 486 times what Citigroup employees get, on average, according to the staff memo. In other words, with 365 days in a year, it takes Corbat less than a day to make what average employees make in a year. The ratio is 381 at JPMorgan, 283 at Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC - Get Report) and 247 at Bank of America.
"Does this seem fair to you?" Velazquez asked Corbat at the hearing in Washington.
It's a tough question, especially in an era when thorny political questions are arising among some lawmakers, economists, investors and many voters about whether the current form of capitalism is working for ordinary Americans.
Citigroup needed a $45 billion taxpayer bailout to survive the 2008 crisis, in addition to tens of billions of dollars more in secret emergency loans from the Federal Reserve. Since then, the bank has become profitable again and it has gone back to awarding big compensation packages to top managers along with generous payouts to shareholders.
"My compensation is decided by our board, and voted on by our shareholders," Corbat told Velazquez.
The response was non-responsive. And at a congressional hearing, questions can be tough to dodge: The TV cameras are rolling, and witnesses are under oath.
Velazquez pressed: What would Corbat, an avowed capitalist, say to one of the bank's lower-paid employees about the pay gap?
"I would be hopeful that there's opportunities to continue to advance at the firm," Corbat replied.
It's the dream of capitalism in practice. The smartest and hardest-working Americans can get ahead, and maybe someday win the lottery twice a year.
The reality is that Corbat is a white-male Connecticut native who graduated from Harvard University with an economics degree and has worked on Wall Street for his entire career including a stint at Salomon Brothers, an investment bank that nearly collapsed in the early 1990s and was later bought by one of Citigroup's predecessor companies.
Velazquez got an answer to her question -- sort of.
She didn't like what she heard: "That is unbelievable."
She should believe it: Facts are facts, feelings are just feelings.