It used to be thought more widely than it is now that in a competitive market, the compensation of workers, on the assumption that it is left to the market, will be efficient. That of course is a major assumption, given unions, minimum wage laws, laws against employment discrimination, and other regulations of employment. But such regulations do not bear significantly on the employment of executives and professionals, and it is they with whose compensation I shall be concerned. Shouldn't we expect that they at least--corporate executives, lawyers, and other elite workers--are efficiently compensated, provided their employers are operating in a vigorously competitive market, as most markets nowadays, other than those that are natural monopolies (that is, markets in which economies of scale are obtainable over the entire range of feasible output), but fewer and fewer markets are naturally monopolistic?
The answer should be yes, but increasingly it seems, as a matter both of theory and of evidence, that to implement efficient methods of compensating executives and professionals is extremely difficult, and maybe as a practical matter impossible for a free-market system to accomplish.
There is a long-standing concern that corporate executives are more risk averse than a corporation's shareholders, because the latter can eliminate firm-specific risk by holding a diversified portfolio, while the former cannot, because they have firm-specific human capital that they will lose if the firm tanks. The solution to this problem was thought to consist in making stock options a large part of the executive's compensation, so that his incentives would be closely aligned with those of the shareholders. True, because he would bear more risk, he would have to be paid more in total compensation than if he did not receive a large part of his compensation in the form of stock options. But the cost to the corporation of the additional pay would presumably be offset by the gain to the shareholders from the executives' enhanced incentives to maximize shareholder wealth.
But we are beginning to realize that the grant of stock options may make corporate executives take more risks than the shareholders desire. Suppose that instead of being compensated for bearing risk just by being paid a higher salary or given even more stock options, the executive is guaranteed generous retirement and severance benefits that are unaffected by the price of the corporation‚Äôs stock. Now he has a hedge against risk, and can take more risks in operating the corporation because his personal downside risk has been truncated. Perhaps this was a factor in the recent stock market bubbles--the one that burst in 2000 with the crash of the high-tech stocks and the one that burst this year as a result of the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and the resulting credit crunch. A bubble is both a repellent and a lure. It is a lure because during the bubble values are rising steeply, so an investor who exits before the bubble has peaked may be leaving a good deal of money on the table. He will be especially loath to do that if he is hedged against the consequences of the bubble's eventual bursting.
Boards of directors could devise compensation schemes that limited the attractiveness of risky undertakings, but they have little incentive to do so. The boards tend to be dominated by CEOs and other high corporate executives of other firms, who have an interest in keeping executive compensation high and who are abetted by compensation consultants who naturally recommend generous compensation packages to directors who are recipients of generous compensation and therefore believe that the CEOs of the companies on whose boards they sit should be paid top dollar.
It is not clear what the free-market antidote to this tendency to ratchet up executive compensation is. The compensation of the CEO and other high officials of a large corporation is usually only a small part of the corporation's costs, so shaving such compensation is unlikely to be a powerful competitive weapon. But more important, what rival corporation would have the governance structure that would enable such shaving to be accomplished by overcoming the obstacles that I have discussed? The private-equity firm is a partial answer, because it has only a few shareholders and so need not delegate compensation to a board of directors that has other interests besides the welfare of the shareholders at heart. The reason it is only a partial answer is that there are too few owners of capital who want or have the ability or experience to participate as actively in management as the private-equity entrepreneurs and there are too many efficiently large corporations for all of them to have the good fortune of being owned by a handful of entrepreneurial investors. There is a vast pool of passive equity capital that can be put to work only in companies that are organized in the traditional board-governed corporate form.
Here is another though related example of a stubborn efficiency-in-compensation problem, also in a highly competitive sector of the economy: law-firm billing practices. Major law firms, with few exceptions, base their bills to their clients on the number of hours that the firm's lawyers work on the client's case or other project. In other words, they bill on the basis of inputs rather than outputs. This is rational when output is difficult to evaluate, as is often the case with a law firm's output because of the uncertainty of litigation (in nonlitigation practice, because of legal and factual uncertainties). The fact that a firm loses a case doesn't mean that it did a bad job; both the winner's firm and the loser's firm may have done equally good jobs--the lawyers don't control the outcome. A law firm can give the client a pretty good idea of the quality of the lawyers it assigns to the client's case, because there are observable proxies for a lawyer's unobservable quality, proxies such as his educational and employment history. What the client cannot readily judge is whether the law firm put in excessive hours on the case, and the result, according to persistent and cumulatively persuasive anecdotage, is a tendency for law firms to invest hours in a case beyond the point at which the marginal value of the additional hour is just equal to the marginal cost to the client. Young lawyers often feel that they are being assigned work to do that has little value to the client but that will increase the firm's income because the firm bills its lawyers' time at a considerably higher rate than the cost of that time to the firm. The very high turnover at many law firms is attributed in part to dissatisfaction of young lawyers with the amount of busywork that they are assigned, work that bores them and does not contribute to the development of their professional skills, yet may be very time-consuming.
The problem is compounded by the distorted incentives of corporate general counsels. A general counsel wants to show his boss, the corporate CEO, that he monitors expenses carefully, and, since he knows that he is likely to lose at least some of his cases, he also wants to be able to avoid if possible being blamed by his boss for the loss. Hourly billing serves both of these ends. The law firm and the general counsel play a little game, in which the law firm prices its hours on the assumption that it will not be able to collect its billing rates on all of them, and the general counsel reduces the number of hours that he is willing to pay for. He can then show his CEO that he squeezed the water out of the law firm's bills. At the same time, by paying a prominent law firm by the hour, he can assure his CEO, in the event a case is lost, that he had told the firm to do as much work as was needed to maximize the likelihood of a favorable outcome, rather than paying a fixed rate agreed to at the outset that might have induced the law firm to skimp on the amount of work it put into the case.
One can imagine a law firm's adopting a different method of pricing, in which it would charge at the outset a fixed fee, subject to adjustments up or down at the end of the case based on outcome, amount of work, or some other performance measure or combination of such measures. The conventional law firm billing system is a form of cost-plus pricing, which is considered wasteful. But litigation is risky, and cost-plus pricing diminishes risk by eliminating a contractor's incentive to cut corners. If the disutility of risk to a general counsel is great, he will prefer to "overpay" law firms rather than trying to explain to the CEO that the novel compensation deal that he worked out with the law firm that lost the case was not a factor in the loss; that he had not been penny wise and pound foolish.
Although the compensation practices that I have described seem inefficient, it does not follow that corrective measures would be appropriate. They would be costly and the net benefits might well be negative. It is efficient to live with a good deal of inefficiency. Stated otherwise, the fact that competitive markets contain large pockets of inefficiency is not in itself inefficient. For example, while cartel pricing is inefficient, if the cost of preventing cartelization exceeded the benefits one wouldn't want to prevent it. Yet cartel pricing would still be inefficient in the sense of misallocating resources, relative to the allocation under competition. We must live with a good deal of inefficiency, but it is still inefficiency.