Executive Compensation and Firm Leverage

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Albert, Michael Joseph

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This dissertation explores the role of executive compensation in determining the capital structure decisions of a firm. CEOs experience a large personal cost of default that interacts through the risk adjusted probability of default with their compensation contract. Since default happens in a particularly costly state of the world for a CEO whose compensation contract consists primarily of pay for performance elements, i.e. a CEO who has a large personal equity stake in the firm, a large pay performance sensitivity is negatively and significantly associated with firm leverage choice. I document this effect in detail for the first time, and I show that it is both statistically robust and significant in magnitude, approximately 1\% of firm value. I show that this effect is driven by the stock holdings of the CEO, not the option holdings. I provide a simple principal agent model that explains the observed negative relationship and makes additional predictions on the relationship of other firm characteristics to pay performance sensitivity and leverage. I then test and confirm these predictions empirically using a standard OLS framework and an instrumental variable approach to control for endogeneity in the compensation contract. I also look at leverage adjustment speeds and show that CEOs with higher pay performance sensitivity adjust leverage upwards towards target values more slowly and downwards more quickly than their peers, and I interpret this as direct evidence that CEOs are actively managing personal risk through firm leverage choice.





Albert, Michael Joseph (2013). Executive Compensation and Firm Leverage. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/7231.


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