How do we determine CEO pay? Narayana Murthy, writing in ET, suggests that the ration of the highest to the lowest pay in a company should be of the order of 20-25. This is rather more liberal than what Peter Drucker, the management guru, had proposed many years ago: 5: 1. But even NRN's prescription is way below what obtains in the corporate world today. In India, I would imagine the ratio is as high as 300: 1 or even 500:1 in many companies. If we factor in perquisites and stock options, the differential escalates even more. It is only in the much-derided public sector that NRN's prescription comes close to being true- and, that too, when you exclude the market value of perquisites such as housing provided by the company.
NRN's argument that companies are bound to benchmark pay with global practices is not persuasive for the simple reason that overseas companies do not have very clear norms for setting CEO pay. Nor is one persuaded by the point about independent directors setting pay- all of us know how independent these directors and how generous they can be when they are looked after well by the company.
The way CEO pay is set is just another manifestation of the fundamentally inequitous nature of modern society- those at the top will simply get away with doing whatever suits them. The best we can ask for more comprehensive disclosure not just of the total pay packages at the top but of the norms used for setting pay. The latter is seldom made available to shareholders or the general public.
More broadly, the answer to reining in private sector pay is to have a public sector alternative that offers a different lifestyle- more security, more job satisfaction, linked to more modest pay. When people have that sort of a choice and many spurn private sector salaries, however attractive, in favour of something that is inherently more satisfying, that might contribute to limiting pay in the private sector.