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Executive Compensation in America: Optimal Contracting or Extraction of Rents


  • Bebchuk, Lucian Arye
  • Fried, Jesse
  • Walker, David I


This Paper develops an account of the role and significance of rent extraction in executive compensation. Under the optimal contracting view of executive compensation, which has dominated academic research on the subject, pay arrangements are set by a board of directors that aims to maximize shareholder value by designing an optimal principal-agent contract. Under the alternative rent extraction view that we examine, the board does not operate at arm’s length; rather, executives have power to influence their own compensation, and they use their power to extract rents. As a result, executives are paid more than is optimal for shareholders and, to camouflage the extraction of rents, executive compensation might be structured sub-optimally. The presence of rent extraction, we argue, is consistent both with the processes that produce compensation schemes and with the market forces and constraints that companies face. Examining the large body of empirical work on executive compensation, we show that the picture emerging from it is largely compatible with the rent extraction view. Indeed, rent extraction, and the desire to camouflage it, can better explain many puzzling features of compensation patterns and practices. We conclude that extraction of rents might well play a significant role in US executive compensation; and that the significant presence of rent extraction should be taken into account in any examination of the practice and regulation of corporate governance.

Suggested Citation

  • Bebchuk, Lucian Arye & Fried, Jesse & Walker, David I, 2001. "Executive Compensation in America: Optimal Contracting or Extraction of Rents," CEPR Discussion Papers 3112, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:3112

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Dirk Jenter & Fadi Kanaan, 2015. "CEO Turnover and Relative Performance Evaluation," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 70(5), pages 2155-2184, October.
    2. Bruno S. Frey & Margit Osterloh, "undated". "Yes, Managers Should be Paid Like Bureaucrats," IEW - Working Papers 187, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
    3. de Meza, David & Webb, David C., 2004. "Principal agent problems under loss aversion: an application to executive stock options," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 24676, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    4. Bechmann, Ken L. & Jørgensen, Peter Løchte, 2003. "The Value and Incentives of Option-based Compensation in Danish Listed Companies," Working Papers 2003-2, Copenhagen Business School, Department of Finance.
    5. Stephen J. Perkins & Chris Hendry, 2005. "Ordering Top Pay: Interpreting the Signals," Journal of Management Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 42(7), pages 1443-1468, November.
    6. David de Meza & David C. Webb, 2007. "Incentive Design under Loss Aversion," Journal of the European Economic Association, MIT Press, vol. 5(1), pages 66-92, March.
    7. Dutta, Sunil & Reichelstein, Stefan J., 2002. "Leading Indicator Variables, Performance Measurement and Long-Term versus Short-Term Contracts," Research Papers 1756, Stanford University, Graduate School of Business.
    8. Choe, Chongwoo, 2003. "Leverage, volatility and executive stock options," Journal of Corporate Finance, Elsevier, vol. 9(5), pages 591-609, November.
    9. repec:wsi:afexxx:v:07:y:2012:i:01:n:s2010495212500030 is not listed on IDEAS
    10. Wim Fonteyne, 2007. "Cooperative Banks in Europe—Policy Issues," IMF Working Papers 07/159, International Monetary Fund.
    11. Alistair Bruce & Trevor Buck & Brian G. M. Main, 2005. "Top Executive Remuneration: A View from Europe," Journal of Management Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 42(7), pages 1493-1506, November.

    More about this item


    agency costs; corporate governance; executive compensation; private benefits of control; rent extraction; stock options;

    JEL classification:

    • D23 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations - - - Organizational Behavior; Transaction Costs; Property Rights
    • G32 - Financial Economics - - Corporate Finance and Governance - - - Financing Policy; Financial Risk and Risk Management; Capital and Ownership Structure; Value of Firms; Goodwill
    • G34 - Financial Economics - - Corporate Finance and Governance - - - Mergers; Acquisitions; Restructuring; Corporate Governance
    • G38 - Financial Economics - - Corporate Finance and Governance - - - Government Policy and Regulation
    • J33 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Compensation Packages; Payment Methods
    • J44 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Particular Labor Markets - - - Professional Labor Markets and Occupations
    • K22 - Law and Economics - - Regulation and Business Law - - - Business and Securities Law


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