09 Nov 2011  Working Papers

CEO Bonus Plans: And How to Fix Them

Executive Summary — Discussions about incentives for CEOs in the United States begin, and often end, with equity-based compensation. After all, stock options and (more recently) grants of restricted stock have comprised the bulk of CEO pay since the mid-1990s, and the changes in CEO wealth due to changes in company stock prices dwarf wealth changes from any other source. Too often overlooked in the discussion, however, is the role of annual and multiyear bonus plans—based on accounting or other non-equity-based performance measures—in rewarding and directing the activities of CEOs and other executives. In this paper, Kevin J. Murphy and Michael C. Jensen describe many of the problems associated with traditional executive bonus plans, and offer suggestions for how these plans can be vastly improved. The paper includes recommendations and guidelines for improving both the governance and design of executive bonus plans and, more broadly, executive compensation policies, processes, and practices. The paper is a draft of a chapter in Jensen, Murphy, and Wruck (2012), CEO Pay and What to Do About it: Restoring Integrity to both Executive Compensation and Capital-Market Relations, forthcoming from Harvard Business School Press. Key concepts include:

  • While compensation committees know how much they pay in bonuses and are generally aware of performance measures used in CEO bonus plans, relatively little attention is paid to the design of the bonus plan or the unintended consequences associated with common design flaws.
  • These recommendations for improving executive bonus plans focus on choosing the right performance measure; determining how performance thresholds, targets, or benchmarks are set; and defining the pay-performance relation and how the relation changes over time.
  • In the absence of "clawback" provisions, boards are rewarding and therefore providing incentives for CEOs and other executives to lie and game the system. Any compensation committee and board that fails to provide for the recovery of ill-gained rewards to its CEO and executives is breaching another of its important fiduciary duties to the firm.

 

Author Abstract

Almost all CEO and executive bonus plans have serious design flaws that limit their benefits dramatically. Such poorly designed executive bonus plans destroy value by providing incentives to manipulate the timing of earnings, mislead the board about organizational capabilities, take on excessive (or insufficient) risk, forgo profitable projects, and ignore the cost of capital. We describe the causes of the problems associated with widely prevalent executive bonus plans, and offer our recommendations for fixing them. We focus on choosing the right performance measure, determining how performance thresholds, targets, or benchmarks are set, and defining the pay-performance relation and how the relation changes over time.

Paper Information