IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

Executive Compensation in America: Optimal Contracting or Extraction of Rents?


  • Lucian Arye Bebchuk
  • Jesse M. Fried
  • David I. Walker


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 U.S. 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

  • Lucian Arye Bebchuk & Jesse M. Fried & David I. Walker, 2001. "Executive Compensation in America: Optimal Contracting or Extraction of Rents?," NBER Working Papers 8661, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8661
    Note: CF LE LS

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    Other versions of this item:

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Giuseppe Nicoletti & Stefano Scarpetta & Olivier Boylaud, 2000. "Summary Indicators of Product Market Regulation with an Extension to Employment Protection Legislation," OECD Economics Department Working Papers 226, OECD Publishing.
    2. David Card, 1990. "The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 43(2), pages 245-257, January.
    3. Blanchard, Olivier & Wolfers, Justin, 2000. "The Role of Shocks and Institutions in the Rise of European Unemployment: The Aggregate Evidence," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 110(462), pages 1-33, March.
    4. Daron Acemoglu & Joshua D. Angrist, 2001. "Consequences of Employment Protection? The Case of the Americans with Disabilities Act," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 109(5), pages 915-957, October.
    5. Juan J. Dolado & Juan F. Jimeno & Rosa Duce, "undated". "The effects of migration on the relative demand of skilled versus unskilled labour: Evidence from Spain," Working Papers 96-20, FEDEA.
    6. Joseph G. Altonji & David Card, 1991. "The Effects of Immigration on the Labor Market Outcomes of Less-skilled Natives," NBER Chapters,in: Immigration, Trade, and the Labor Market, pages 201-234 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Zweimuller, Joseph & Winter-Ebmer, Rudolf, 1995. "Immigration, Trade and Austrian Unemployment," Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Working Paper Series qt8cp8c6hf, Institute of Industrial Relations, UC Berkeley.
    8. Schmidt, Christoph M. & Stilz, Anette & Zimmermann, Klaus F., 1994. "Mass migration, unions, and government intervention," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 55(2), pages 185-201, October.
    9. Marianne Bertrand & Francis Kramarz, 2002. "Does Entry Regulation Hinder Job Creation? Evidence from the French Retail Industry," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 117(4), pages 1369-1413.
    10. Samuel Bentolila & Giuseppe Bertola, 1990. "Firing Costs and Labour Demand: How Bad is Eurosclerosis?," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 57(3), pages 381-402.
    11. Stephen Nickell, 1997. "Unemployment and Labor Market Rigidities: Europe versus North America," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 11(3), pages 55-74, Summer.
    12. Assaf Razin & Efraim Sadka, 1996. "Suppressing resistance to low-skill migration," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 3(3), pages 413-424, July.
    13. Robert J. LaLonde & Robert H. Topel, 1991. "Labor Market Adjustments to Increased Immigration," NBER Chapters,in: Immigration, Trade, and the Labor Market, pages 167-199 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    14. George J. Borjas, 1994. "The Economics of Immigration," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 32(4), pages 1667-1717, December.
    15. Jörn-Steffen Pischke & Johannes Velling, 1997. "Employment Effects Of Immigration To Germany: An Analysis Based On Local Labor Markets," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 79(4), pages 594-604, November.
    16. Dani Rodrik, 1997. "Has Globalization Gone Too Far?," Peterson Institute Press: All Books, Peterson Institute for International Economics, number 57.
    17. Schwartz, Aba, 1973. "Interpreting the Effect of Distance on Migration," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 81(5), pages 1153-1169, Sept.-Oct.
    18. Joseph G. Altonji & David Card, 1989. "The Effects of Immigration on the Labor Market Outcomes of Natives," NBER Working Papers 3123, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    19. John M. Abowd & Richard B. Freeman, 1991. "Immigration, Trade, and the Labor Market," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number abow91-1, January.
    20. Bauer, Thomas K. & Zimmermann, Klaus F., 1999. "Report No. 3: Assessment of Possible Migration Pressure and its Labour Market Impact Following EU Enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe," IZA Research Reports 3, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    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

    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

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8661. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    We have no references for this item. You can help adding them by using this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.