Executive compensation has been criticized both for being too generous, and for encouraging excessive risk-taking relative to the desires of stockholders. Yet while there are links between the level of pay and the amount of risk chosen, these are mainly distinct issues. Executives may be paid little, but the pay can be structured to have a much better payoff when profits are high than when profits are low. In this case, the average level of pay over both good and bad times would not be particularly generous, but its structure would tend to encourage risk-taking behavior. On the other hand, a CEO's pay might be excessively high on average, but not appreciable better when his company does well than when it does badly. He would be overpaid, but he would not have a financial incentive to take much risks.
Does the pay structure in American corporations, with the growing emphasis during the past several decades on stock options, bonuses, and severance and retirement pay, encourage excessive risk-taking, where "excessive" is defined relative to the desires of stockholders? It may look that way now with the sizable number of major financial companies that have taken huge write downs in their mortgage-backed and other assets, while top executives of some of these companies have only had modest declines in their pay (although others, such as the head of Bears Sterns, have taken huge hits). However, these financial difficulties do not necessarily imply that heads of most financial companies knowingly engaged in more speculative activities than desired by stockholders because of the incentives CEOs had. A more compelling explanation is that heads of companies have undervalued the risks involved in holding derivatives and other exotic securities, particularly securities that were rather new and not well understood. Let me stress, however, that I am not trying to excuse the many CEOs in the financial sector and in other sectors who got off much too easily for terrible investment decisions.
Bubbles are prolonged periods of excessive optimism where the true longer-term risk to holding particular assets is generally underestimated. The housing boom of the past few years now appears to have been a serious bubble where pervasive optimism about housing price movements raised the rate of increase in housing prices far beyond sustainable levels. Sophisticated lenders as well as low-income borrowers underestimated the risks involved in the residential housing market, as they appeared to have assumed that housing prices would continue to rise for a number of years in excess of ten percent per year.
Evidence suggesting that the risk taken by companies during the recent boom was not mainly due to a principal-agent problem between executives and stockholders is that the major private equity firms also experienced serious loses on their investments, especially on their housing investments. Private equity companies have much less of a principal-agent problem than do Citicorp, Bears Sterns and other publicly traded companies because private equity companies have a concentrated ownership. Also borrowers in the residential housing market have basically no principal-agent problems since they buy for themselves; yet many of them too took on excessive risk because of undo optimism about the housing market.
The private equity example provides a more general way to test whether CEOs take greater risks than their stockholders desire. One can analyze the relation between the degree of concentration of stock ownership in different companies and various measures of risk, such as their year-to-year variance earnings, adjusted for industry and other relevant determinants of this variance. The excessive risk argument would suggest that the more concentrated the ownership, the smaller would be the actual exposure to earnings and asset risk.
Another test of the excessive risk argument is whether the trend toward greater compensation in the form of stock options and other performance contingent compensation increased the risk taking of companies. Some have attributed much of the dot-com bubble to increased performance based compensation. However, most dot-com companies that went under were quite small and rather closely held by venture capitalists and similar investors. Hence these companies did not have a sharp conflict between stockholders and managers. Moreover, during the dot-com bubble, assets of minor Internet companies were raised in market value to more than 100 times earnings, even when they had no sales, let alone earnings. Such huge earnings-profits ratios suggest excessive risk taking by stockholders more than by managers.
Economic theory does imply that the increasing trend toward performance-based compensation would increase the degree of risk-taking by top executives. It is much less clear whether this effect is large- doubts are expressed by Canice Prendergast in his study "The Tenuous Trade-Off Between Risk And Incentives", Journal of Political Economy, 2002, (Oct), 1071-1102. It is also unclear if CEOs have been induced to take more risks than the level of risk desired by stockholders. Furthermore, and most important, there is no persuasive evidence that the structure of CEO compensation played an important roll in either the dot-com or housing bubbles.