Do Good Times Bread Cheats?

We examine whether prosperous economic times have both immediate and lasting implications for corporate misconduct among chief executive officers (CEOs). Drawing on research suggesting that prosperous times are associated with excessive risk-taking, overconfidence, and more opportunities to cheat, we first propose that CEOs will be more likely to engage in corporate misconduct during good economic times. Next, we propose that CEOs who begin their careers in prosperous times will be more likely to engage in self-serving corporate misconduct later in their careers. We tested these hypotheses by assembling a large data set of American CEOs and following their stock option reporting patterns between 1996 and 2005. We found that in good economic times, CEOs were more likely to backdate their stock options grants.

Moreover, CEOs who began their careers in prosperous times were more likely to backdate stock option grants later in their careers. These findings suggest that the state of the economy can influence current ethical behavior and leave a lasting imprint on the moral proclivities of new workforce entrants.

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