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The Hidden Nature of Executive Retirement Pay

by Robert J. Jackson, Jr. & Colleen Honigsberg
100 Va. L. Rev. 479 (2014)
Article

There are two competing theories of why public companies pay executives generous retirement benefits. One is that retirement pay is easier to hide from shareholders than other forms of compensation. The other is that retirement benefits align executives’ interests with those of long-term creditors, since the executives may not receive their payouts if the firm goes bankrupt. The latter view depends on the assumption that retirement benefits put executives in a similar contractual position as the company’s creditors. Yet no previous work has tested that assumption.

This Article provides the first systematic study of the contractual structure of executive retirement payouts. Using retirement pay data for thousands of executives, we show that a large proportion of executives link the value of their payouts to the company’s stock price and receive the bulk of these payouts immediately following their departure—features that contradict the incentive-alignment theory of retirement pay. The evidence also shows that the full amount and structure of retirement pay are undisclosed—findings consistent with the camouflage theory. While the structure of some executives’ payouts can be reconciled with the incentive-alignment theory, current rules do not give investors the information they need to tell the difference between payouts that align incentives and those that camouflage compensation. Lawmakers should require companies to reveal the structure of these payouts, and neither regulators nor commentators should assume that retirement benefits suppress top managers’ appetite for risk.

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