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The Tenuous Tradeoff Between Risk and Incentives

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  • Canice Prendergast

Abstract

Empirical work testing for a negative tradeoff between risk and incentives, a cornerstone of agency theory, has not had much success. Indeed, the data seem to suggest a positive relationship between measures of uncertainty and incentives, rather than the posited negative tradeoff. I argue that the existing literature fails to account for an important effect of uncertainty on incentives through the allocation of responsibility to employees. When workers operate in certain settings, the activities that they should engage in are well known, and firms are content to assign tasks to workers and monitor their inputs. By contrast, when the situation is more uncertain, firms know less about how workers should be spending their time. As a result, the delegate responsibility to workers but, to constraint heir discretion, base compensation on observed output. Hence, uncertainty and output-based pay are positively related. I argue that parts of the existing empirical literature are better explained through this lens than with the standard model.

Suggested Citation

  • Canice Prendergast, 2000. "The Tenuous Tradeoff Between Risk and Incentives," NBER Working Papers 7815, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7815
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    Cited by:

    1. Keld Laursen, 2002. "The Importance of Sectoral Differences in the Application of Complementary HRM Practices for Innovation Performance," International Journal of the Economics of Business, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 9(1), pages 139-156.
    2. Rafael Rob & Peter Zemsky, 2002. "Social Capital, Corporate Culture, and Incentive Intensity," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 33(2), pages 243-257, Summer.
    3. Gerald T. Garvey & Todd T. Milbourn, 2001. "Market-Indexed Executive Compensation: Strictly for the Young," Claremont Colleges Working Papers 2001-19, Claremont Colleges.
    4. Francine Lafontaine & Scott E. Masten, 2002. "Contracting in the Absence of Specific Investments and Moral Hazard: Understanding Carrier-Driver Relations in U.S. Trucking," NBER Working Papers 8859, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Dean Yang, 2008. "Can Enforcement Backfire? Crime Displacement in the Context of Customs Reform in the Philippines," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 90(1), pages 1-14, February.
    6. Stefanie Aniela Lehmann, 2008. "When Randomization in Collective Tournaments is Profitable for the Principal," Bonn Econ Discussion Papers bgse19_2008, University of Bonn, Germany, revised Mar 2009.

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    JEL classification:

    • J3 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs

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