Things not to do: Place a cap on maximum earnings

The earnings of Chief Executive Officers have risen spectacularly over the course of the century. This has been especially true of those involved in the finance industries, but has also been true of most of the FTSE 100 companies. Salaries and bonuses running into millions of pounds are common, and even those running into tens of millions are not unknown. The gap between what is earned by the average employees of a company and what is earned by its executives has widened dramatically over the same period.  

There are calls for government to take action by setting an upper limit on what executives can earn, and by legislating to impose a maximum ratio between the earnings of average employees and those of directors and board members. The claim by some is that directors have been abusing their power by voting themselves unjustified salary and bonus increases simply because they can, and that only legislation can curb this misuse of power.

One reason behind these dramatic increases has been globalization, and another has been advances in technology. Globalization has opened up vast new markets for firms and placed a premium on successful expansion. The rewards of this activity have been huge, spawning multinationals with an outreach into many countries.

Technology has seen the rise of hugely profitable companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook, all of which make huge sums on a global scale and have seen their shares rocket as they have expanded.

This backdrop has meant that successful chief executives can make a dramatic contribution to corporate earnings. There is a limited pool of outstanding talent, as there is in many sports. It means that those at the peak of their profession or their performance are in great demand. Because they are in relatively short supply, organizations bid against each other to secure them. This happens in business as in football. The presence of Ronaldo on a team can make the difference between success and failure, and the same is true of top executives. Often when a talented director leaves a company, its shares plunge in consequence. The recruitment of a known outstanding talent can similarly see an immediate increase in a company's shares.

Top executives are paid huge sums because, for the most part, they earn it for their companies. In a highly competitive world with great revenues at stake, companies want to hire the best, and to hire the best they must pay the most.

There are undoubtedly some cases of abuse, in which executives are given rewards beyond any value they have added to their company, but the solution here is not to limit maximum earnings and punish the ones who are worth it, but to encourage shareholders to resist unjustified awards. A maximum earnings limit would severely damage the UK economy by depriving its companies of the top talent that can augment their revenues. The UK would be reduced to employing second rate people and would become a second-rate economy.