Economic Determinants and Consequences of Performance Target Difficulty

56 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2021 Last revised: 21 Jun 2022

See all articles by Sunyoung Kim

Sunyoung Kim

Monash University

Michal Matejka

Arizona State University

Jongwon Park

Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Date Written: June 21, 2022


Using data on earnings targets in annual bonus plans, we construct and validate an empirical measure of beginning-of-year target difficulty and show that it is negatively associated with market uncertainty, retention concerns, and CEO entrenchment. We then present several findings about the effect of target difficulty on performance and CEO compensation. First, greater target difficulty in annual bonus plans is associated with significantly lower CEO cash compensation as well as with decreases in other compensation awards. Second, moderately challenging targets (neither too easy nor too difficult to achieve) are associated with abnormal reversals in fourth-quarter performance, particularly reductions in fourth-quarter performance following abnormally favorable third-quarter performance. Third, greater target difficulty is associated with higher same-year abnormal earnings but at the same time with lower next-year earnings and stock returns. Combined, our findings suggest that target difficulty is an important incentive design choice that affects performance and executive compensation.

Keywords: Performance targets, target difficulty, incentives

JEL Classification: M12, M21, M40

Suggested Citation

Kim, Sunyoung and Matejka, Michal and Park, Jongwon, Economic Determinants and Consequences of Performance Target Difficulty (June 21, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

Sunyoung Kim

Monash University ( email )

H3.43, Building H, Level 3
Monash University Caulfiled
Melbourne, VIC 3145
613 99032183 (Phone)

Michal Matejka (Contact Author)

Arizona State University ( email )

Tempe, AZ 85287-3706
United States
480-965-7984 (Phone)

Jongwon Park

Hong Kong Polytechnic University ( email )

Hong Kong
+85227667161 (Phone)

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