Marianne Bertrand helped unleash a shareholder backlash against CEO pay with research she began while still in graduate school.

In a 2001 paper based on her work as a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, the 43-year-old labor economist documented that chief executive officers at U.S. oil companies got raises when their company’s fortunes improved because of changes in global oil prices beyond their control. The same pay-for-luck phenomenon occurred with multinational businesses when currency fluctuations, rather than management strategies, boosted results, she found.

“Marianne’s work challenged conventional thinking about executive compensation and corporate governance,” said Glenn Davis, director of research for the Washington-based Council of Institutional Investors.

Her research has influenced shareholder advocates who debunk arguments that CEO pay is an effective means of providing incentives or rewarding performance, said Nell Minow, founder and a director of GMI Ratings, which evaluates governance risk at public companies.

“I am a great fan of Bertrand’s work,” Minow said. “Her analysis is compelling in showing that a significant portion of pay at the highest levels is related to overall market or sector performance and not the performance of the individual company, much less the individual executive.”

Extensive Overhaul

In the wake of shareholder concerns, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in July 2006 approved the most extensive overhaul of executive-pay rules in more than a decade, requiring companies to report the total compensation for their five highest-paid officials, including salaries, benefits and stock. In January 2011 the agency gave investors the right to weigh in on pay packages.

Bertrand’s influence extends beyond helping to shape the debate over CEO compensation and disclosure. Her work on the U.S. labor market revealed that managers show racial bias despite laws prohibiting discrimination. She has demonstrated why women continue to lag behind men in careers and pay. Her recent work also reveals the value of providing more- understandable information about consumer loans -- which may bolster regulation of payday lending.

Bertrand is “incredibly creative, innovative, and productive,” said Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, chief economist for the U.S. Labor Department in 1993 and 1994 during the Clinton administration and one of Bertrand’s professors.

Selling Fish