Payday Before Mayday: CEO Compensation Contracting for Distressed Firms
62 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2020 Last revised: 29 Apr 2020
Date Written: April 28, 2020
Using a sample of more than 1,500 US public firms in the period 1998-2016, we examine how firms endogenously adjust CEO compensation contracts when they become financially distressed. The link between compensation and equity-based measures of firm performance is positive and strong prior to distress, but declines and becomes insignificant when firms are in distress. However, the relationship of pay to cash flow performance remains positive for distressed firms. Directly examining the ex-ante incentives provided in contracts rather than ex-post payouts, we provide evidence that firms respond to the onset of distress by providing incentives oriented toward improving cash flows. Specifically, distressed firms increase their use of performance-based pay but re-orient performance metrics towards cash flow related measures and set performance targets farther above prior performance. Further, these firms reduce equity-oriented incentives by increasing the proportion of expected performance-based compensation to be paid in cash rather than stock. These changes are economically most important for firms with the greatest need to replace out-of-the-money equity-based incentives, and in the years immediately preceding an actual default or bankruptcy. Overall, our findings are consistent with agency theory predicting that reduced incentives require contract realignment of managers with relevant stakeholders of distressed firms.
Keywords: CEO Compensation, Managerial Incentives, Contracting, Financial Distress, Default, Creditors, Pay-performance Sensitivity
JEL Classification: G33, G34, J33, M12, M52, M41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation