One financial figure that some big U.S. companies would rather keep secret is how much more their chief executive makes than the typical worker.
Now a group backed by 81 major companies, including McDonald's, Lowe's, General Dynamics, American Airlines, IBM and General Mills, is lobbying against new rules that would force disclosure of this comparison.
The companies, and some Republicans in Congress, call the comparison between the chief and everyone else in the company "useless."
But some Democrats and investors say the information should be issued to help investors make ethical investment decisions and to highlight the nation's growing income disparity. Opponents of the disclosure, they say, merely want to hide the scale of outrageous executive compensation packages.
On Wednesday, a House committee approved a bill that would repeal the disclosure requirement.
Disclosing such comparisons "can mislead or confuse investors," said Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., who sponsored the bill repeal measure and who counted three financial firms among her top donors. "It creates heat but sheds no light."
The vote was largely along partisan lines: Republicans supported repeal, angering Democrats.
"The real reason House Republicans want to keep the typical worker's pay secret is that it may embarrass some companies to reveal that they pay their CEO in the range of 400 times what they pay their typical worker," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who added the requirement to the mammoth financial reform bill last year.
Income inequality has been growing rapidly in the United States since the 1970s, and recent academic research has indicated that the growth of executive pay is one of the key reasons.
Executive compensation at the nation's largest firms has more than quadrupled in real terms since the 1970s, according to research by Carola Frydman from MIT's Sloan School of Management and Raven Molloy of the Federal Reserve, even as pay for 90 percent of America has stalled.
In 1970, average executive pay at the nation's top companies was 28 times the average worker income, according to the Frydman-Molloy data and numbers provided by Emmanuel Saez at the University of California, Berkeley. By 2005, executive pay had jumped to 158 times that of the average worker.
Concern over the income disparity led Menendez to add the reporting requirement to the financial reform legislation, which Congress approved last year.
The requirement calls for public companies to report the median of annual total compensation for workers and the annual total compensation for the chief executive, and to report the ratio of the two.
Criticism of the bill has been led by the Center of Executive Compensation, which is part of the HR Policy Association, which represents the human resources executives at 325 large companies.
The thrust of the group's criticism is that the information would have little value in making comparisons between companies because different firms have different labor forces, different amounts of contract labor, and workers of different skill levels. Wages also vary across regions and industries.
Current rules already require disclosure of executive compensation. The new requirement merely calls for the additional disclosure of median worker pay at the company. The critics say this would add little to what is already known.