NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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CEO Pay and the rise of Relative Performance Contracts: A Question of Governance?

Brian Bell, John Van Reenen

NBER Working Paper No. 22407
Issued in July 2016
NBER Program(s):Corporate Finance, Labor Studies

Would moving to relative performance contracts improve the alignment between CEO pay and performance? To address this we exploit the large rise in relative performance awards and the share of equity pay in the UK over the last two decades. Using new employer-employee matched datasets we find that the CEO pay-performance relationship remains asymmetric: pay responds more to increases in shareholders’ return performance than to decreases. Further, this asymmetry is stronger when governance appears weak. Second, there is substantial “pay-for-luck” as remuneration increases with random positive shocks, even when the CEO has equity awards that explicitly condition on firm performance relative to peer firms in the same sector. A reason why relative performance pay fails to deal with pay for luck is that CEOs who fail to meet the terms of their past performance awards are able to obtain more generous new equity rewards in the future. Moreover, this “compensation effect” is stronger when the firm has weak corporate governance. These findings suggest that reforms to the formal structure of CEO pay contracts are unlikely to align incentives in the absence of strong shareholder governance.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22407

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