The Relationship between Shareholder Return and CEO Pay over a CEO’s Full Period of Service

The author reports the findings of his examination of the relationship between CEO pay and performance, as measured by shareholder returns, using measures of compensation and returns that span a CEO’s full period of service. Unlike studies that look at annual measures of CEO pay and stock returns—which are distorted by the widespread use of options and the arbitrary effects of when CEOs choose to exercise their options—the author finds a statistically significant connection between total compensation and shareholder return measured over full periods of service for 521 S&P 500 CEOs. Indeed, after one adjusts for differences in the length of a CEO’s service, shareholder return is arguably the most important determinant of variation in the amount paid CEOs over their complete tenures. 

Besides answering the legion of critics of CEO pay, the author’s analysis refutes the claim that bull markets are the main force driving executive pay by demonstrating that the increases in career pay attributable to increases in shareholder returns are almost exactly offset by reductions in pay when the Value-Weighted (S&P 500) Index increases by the same amount. In other words, CEOs’ cumulative career pay is effectively driven by the extent to which their stock returns outperform the broad market. The analysis also casts doubt on the popular claim that the link between CEO pay and corporate size provides incentives to undertake even value-reducing acquisitions to boost size. As the author’s analysis shows, the estimated losses in career CEO pay associated with even small declines in shareholder returns are likely to be offset by the pay increases attributable to size.