Evolving Executive Equity Compensation and the Limits of Optimal Contracting
Executive equity compensation in the United States is evolving. At the turn of the millennium, stock options dominated the equity pay landscape, accounting for over half of the aggregate ex ante value of senior executive pay at large public companies, while restricted stock and similar compensation accounted for only about ten percent. Beginning in 2006, stock grants have displaced options as the single largest component of senior executive compensation at these firms. Accompanying this shift has been increased variation among companies in their relative emphasis on stock and options in equity pay packages. Both phenomena provide an opportunity for a rich exploration of executive pay contracting focusing specifically on equity pay design. Such an exploration is timely given the current focus in Washington on the relationship between equity compensation and corporate risk taking. This Article begins that exploration and has two primary aims. First, it describes the evolution in executive equity pay practices and the current equity compensation landscape. Second, it considers the extent to which this evolution and the current use of stock and option pay can be explained as a function of efficient contracting (and what “efficient contracting” means in this context). The analysis reveals several features of the executive equity pay landscape that suggest limitations on efficient compensation contracting. First, although directionally consistent with changes in the conventional economic determinants of equity pay design, the dramatic shift over the last decade from very heavy reliance on options to a more balanced emphasis on stock and options suggests that option expensing, option taint, and/or increased perceptions of option risk played leading roles. Second, the trimodal distribution of the mix of stock and options being granted in recent years suggests that optimizing incentives is not the sole consideration of issuing firms. Third, the extent to which the same mix of stock and options is granted to the various member of the executive suite suggests that individual optimization is quite limited.