On the basis of some highly selective number crunching, the shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown, trumpets that directors of the electricity companies will have made £23m in pay and options since privatisation in 1991. No doubt this is more than they deserve,though anyone who knew the old CEGB knows what a bureaucratic, overmanned and inefficient organisation that was. While National Power and PowerGen have made lots of money out of their dominance of the generating market, it is not all duopoly profits. The management has got a firm grip on costs and shareholders have every reason to be happy with the results of their more professional approach. The market capitalisation of the two companies has grown by £5bn since privatisation. Don't forget that the lucky men from the generators will also be paying tax on their gains.
Even granted that the utilities generally have been coining it to excess, the uneven standards that the public and media apply to pay remain a curious phenomenon. News that the joint heads of Warburg's equity capital markets operation have been lured to Morgan Grenfell for a reported salary package of £3m a year is just the latest case in point. Such moves pass largely without public notice or censure.
There is a real market for trading talent, which is not by and large true of generating company managers, and the results of a trader's efforts can be more easily measured. Yet is the scale of such rewards any more justifiable? Certainly few would claim that managing a large public company is materially easier than running a trading book.
Meanwhile many professionals - accountants, barristers, surgeons, to name but three - are able to earn very large six-figure salaries without, it seems, falling foul of the court of public opinion. The nation's most ubiquitous PR man, Sir Tim Bell, meanwhile is said to earn £400,000 a year, and the winner of the National Lottery can make £10m for doing nothing more than fill in six numbers on a card.