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This article studies traditional and modern theories of executive compensation, bringing them together under a simple unifying framework accessible to the general-interest reader. We analyze assignment models of the level of pay, and static and dynamic moral hazard models of incentives, and compare their predictions to empirical findings. We make two broad points. First, traditional theories find it difficult to explain the data, suggesting that compensation results from “rent extraction” by CEOs. However, more modern “shareholder value” theories that arguably better capture the CEO setting do deliver predictions consistent with observed practices, suggesting that these practices need not be inefficient. Second, seemingly innocuous features of the modeling setup, often made for tractability or convenience, can lead to signicant differences in the model’s implications and conclusions on the efficiency of observed practices. We close by highlighting apparent inefficiencies in executive compensation and additional directions for future research.

Published in

Journal of Economic Literature
Published in volume 54, issue 4, pages 1232-87 of Journal of Economic Literature, December 2016

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