Taming the Stock Option Game

CAMBRIDGE – Executive compensation is now a central concern of company boards and government regulators.  There is an aspect to this debate, however, that deserves greater scrutiny: the freedom of executives to pick the moment when they can cash out on their equity-based incentives. Standard pay arrangements give executives broad discretion over when they sell shares and exercise options that have been awarded to them. Such discretion is both unnecessary and undesirable.

The freedom to time the moment they cash out enables executives to use the special knowledge they have about their companies to sell before a stock-price decline. Although insider-trading laws supposedly prevent executives from using “hard” material information, executives usually also have “soft” information at their fingertips which gives them an advantage over the market. Indeed, it is a well documented fact that executives make considerable “abnormal” profits – that is, above-market returns – when trading in their own firms’ stock.

A second problem with executives being free to time the sales of their stock options and shares is that such freedom provides them with an incentive to use their influence over company disclosures to rig the stock price from declining before they execute their trades. Empirical studies have identified a connection between the level of executive selling and earnings manipulation – both legal and illegal.

What should be done about this? For starters, executives’ payoff from stock sales should not depend on a single stock price. Rather, the payoff should be based on the average stock price over a significant period of time.