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Are Energy Executives Rewarded for Luck?

02.06.19

Are Energy Executives Rewarded for Luck?

In an influential paper, Bertrand and Mullainathan (2001) show that energy executives are rewarded for high oil prices, which they term pay-for-luck. Almost twenty years later, performance-based pay as a portion of executive compensation has nearly doubled; total executive compensation has also nearly doubled; and new disclosure laws and tax rules have changed the regulatory landscape. In this paper, we examine whether their results and their interpretation continue to hold in this changing environment. We find that executive compensation at U.S. oil and gas companies is still closely tied to oil prices, indicating that executives continue to be rewarded for luck despite the increased availability of more sophisticated compensation mechanisms. This finding is robust to including time-varying controls for the firms' scale of operations, and it holds not only for total executive compensation but also for several of the separate individual's components of compensation, including bonuses. Moreover, we show there is less pay-for-luck in better-governed companies, and that pay-for-luck is asymmetric - rising with increasing oil prices more than it falls with decreasing oil prices. These patterns are more consistent with rent extraction by executives than with maximizing shareholder value. Read more..

By Lucas Davis and Catherine Hausman