In Reining in Excessive Risk Taking by Executives: Experimental Evidence, researchers Mathieu Lefebvre and Ferdinand Vieider find that excessive risks are likely to be reduced by aligning executives’ interests with those of shareowners. (paper available at SSRN, March 2010) Abstract follows:
Compensation of executives by means of equity has long been seen as a means to tie executives’ income to company performance, and thus as a solution to the principal-agent dilemma created by the separation of ownership and management in publicly owned companies. The overwhelming part of such equity compensation is currently provided in the form of stock-options. Recent events have however revived suspicions that the latter may induce excessive risk taking by executives. In an experiment, we find that subjects acting as executives do indeed take risks that are excessive from the perspective of shareholders if compensated through options. Comparing compensation mechanisms based on stock-options to long-term stock-ownership plans, we find that the latter significantly reduce the uptake of excessive risks by aligning the executives’ interests with those of shareholders. Introducing an institutionalized accountability mechanism consisting in the requirement for executives to justify their choices in front of a shareholder reunion also reduces excessive risk taking, and appears to be even more effective than long-term stock-ownership plans. A combination of long-term stock-ownership plans and increased accountability thus seem a promising direction for reining in excessive risk taking by executives.