Claudine Gartenberg and Julie Wulf have written a paper on executive compensation that you may find interesting. They examined the effects of the 1992 SEC Proxy Disclosure Rule, which increased the transparency of executive compensation at publicly traded firms. While transparency is generally a good thing, they found a somewhat unfortunate unintended consequence. After the ruling, executives became more aware of the compensation received by their peers, and they engaged in more comparison to those peers. Those comparisons resulted in a convergence and ratcheting up of executive compensation. The effects proved to most pronounced among geographically dispersed firms. The scholars argue that those executives had a harder time knowing the pay of their peers before the SEC disclosure ruling. Executives in firms of close geographic proximity already could compare compensation to one another through other means besides the company proxies.
This study only confirms what I have felt for a long time, namely that compensation isn't just about the absolute level of pay. It's about how you stack up against your peers. That is true within firms, as well as across firms. You might recall Michael Lewis describing how traders compared their bonuses in his book, Liar's Poker. A giant bonus could still be disappointing if surpassed by one's colleagues. It may sound insane, but it's human nature.
The real problem, though, lies with boards of directors. It's one thing for executives to want to "win the compensation game" against their peers. It's quite another for boards to escalate this competition. Boards need to recognize the market dynamics, but they must guard against a "compare and ratchet up" phenomenon that has taken hold in many boardrooms.