Apparently CEOs are upset that the Security and Exchange Commission is going to require calculation of CEO pay based upon median salary of all employees rather than Mean or average. They argue that this would burden them with unnecessarily complex calculations. This of course is an absurd statement. Let’s do a thought experiment to walk through the difference between averages and medians.

You, a friend and Bill Gates get on an elevator, your current net worth is $100,000, your friend’s is $200,000 while Bill Gates is somewhere near $60 Billion. The average net worth of the three of you would be $20 billion, while the median is $200,000. The difference in ratio between these examples are staggering. In the example of averages, Bill Gates is only 3:1, while in the second example it’s 300,000:1. Major difference correct? This example is specifically designed to highlight the massiveness of the differences between averages and medians.

As you can see in the chart above with a skewed distribution there will be a gap between the median and mean. We hear this routinely when people discuss home prices, they are always discussed in medians, because the average price of a home is positively skewed by millionaires in most cities. Like the one above.

So what would the difference in salaries be if salaries are calculated off of median rather than means? Well, let’s use some real numbers, in 2004 the US the average annual income was: $60,528 while the median was $43,318 (source wikipedia). We’ll look at the extremes for ratio difference compared to these numbers, the JC Penny CEO earned 1795:1 the mean worker, so his salary could have been: $108,647,760 for the Mean compared to $77,755,810 or $31 million less (obviously the mean and median salaries for JC Penny’s employees are lower than the median or mean values for the US). On the lower end the CEO for Agilent Technologies earn a measly 173:1 or (mean) $10,471,344; (median) $7,494,014 or $3 Million more.

Limiting CEO salaries based on the median means dramatically less money for the CEO. It also highlights disparity in numbers of people that are making really low salaries. I would imagine that for a company like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart the median salary for employees is between 20-30k/year, which would drive down the maximum salary well down if the limit is something like a ratio of 100 (median of 25k*100 = 2,500,000).

The true concern of the complexity comes from not the new method of calculating the maximum ratio a CEO can earn using medians – especially as it’s built into excel (=average()/=median() ) and nearly all financial tools, but in the complexity of creating compensation packages to get around that law. If the law is strictly implemented where there is absolutely no wiggle room where all stock options, bonuses, and base salary cannot be above some set ratio on the median salary, then the only way to pay CEO’s more is to shift that median up. This would impact profits and most likely profit margins. A way around this would be to outsource manufacturing and exclusively design in the US thus shifting up median salaries. It will be interesting to see how CEOs and leadership address this.

Otherwise they might have to make a lot less money per year and save shareholders a lot of money.