Many have pointed to excessive risk-taking by the CEOs of financial firms as a contributor to the recent worldwide economic crisis. The same observers often blame questionable corporate governance structures and compensation practices for that risk-taking. But is this perception correct? And what is the relationship between CEO incentives and risk-taking outside of the financial industry, where the government guarantees provided by deposit insurance could have distorted incentives?

In an attempt to answer these questions, the authors analyze the relationship between CEO incentives and corporate risk-taking by 101 U.S. REITs during the period 2003 to 2007. Their main finding is that corporate risk-taking, as measured by the growth rate in corporate debt (the only measure of risk that is completely under the control of the CEO), is inversely related to CEO stock ownership—that is, the larger the CEO's equity ownership stake, the slower the growth in debt financing and financial risk-taking. At the same time, the authors find that financial risk-taking is positively related to large cash bonuses for the CEOs and to situations in which the CEO is also chairman of the board of directors. Finally, the authors also report that CEOs who are relatively new to the job grow more slowly and borrow less, suggesting that boards of directors can temporarily contain risky expansion plans by the CEO. These results provide support for those corporate governance reformers who wish to cut cash bonus payments for CEOs in favor of long-term stock ownership.