Executive Compensation Using Relative-Performance-Based Options: Evaluating the Structure and Costs of Indexed Options
Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 01-021
70 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2001
Date Written: May 2000
This paper examines how an option plan that rewards managers for firm performance relative to some market or industry benchmark should be structured, and gauges the deadweight costs of such a plan. Relative-performance-based compensation advocates contend that conventional stock options do not adequately discriminate between strong and weak managers, typically suggesting "indexed options," that is, options with an exercise price linked to a market or industry index, as a remedy. A close examination of indexed options, however, reveals a fundamental problem: indexed options do not function as intended. Instead, their payoff remains highly sensitive to market or industry price movements. This paper proposes an alternative option design that does remove the effects of the desired benchmark. This structure uses an option with a fixed exercise price, where the underlying asset is a portfolio comprised of the firm's stock hedged against market and industry price movements. The paper then compares the deadweight cost of this performance-benchmarked option to that of a conventional stock option. Deadweight costs inevitably accompany any equity-based compensation program, because the firm's managers must be exposed to firm-specific risks to properly align incentives, and this forced concentrated exposure prevents managers from optimal portfolio diversification. Undiversified managers are exposed to the firm's total volatility, rather than the smaller systematic portion faced by the well-diversified investor, meaning that they will always value their stock- and option-based compensation at less than its market value. I estimate the cost of this lost diversification, and find that, perhaps surprisingly, the gap between the firm's cost (the market value) and the manager's private value of an option is 57% greater for relative-performance-based options than for conventional options. The relative-performance based options have larger deadweight costs because, by design, they strip away the manager's exposure to all systematic risk, leaving her with a portfolio with an expected return no better than the risk-free rate. The paper discusses the practical implications of this analysis for firms adopting relative-performance-based option plans.
Keywords: Executive compensation, Executive Stock Options, Indexed Options, Relative Performance Based Compensation, Pay for Performance, Compensation Efficiency
JEL Classification: G30, G34, J30, J33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation