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Overconfidence Takes a Positive Turn in Crisis Times

Overconfidence, or the tendency to underestimate risk and overestimate returns, is often cited as a leading factor behind some of the biggest corporate failures in history, from the Enron scandal at the turn of the millennium, to the spectacular collapses of investment banks Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers during the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2008.

With the world now in the grip of a new crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent research study is challenging the stereotypical discourse on overconfident business leaders and suggests that a touch of conceit in CEOs may help to lead their companies through the storm.

The study CEO Overconfidence and the COVID-19 Pandemic was co-conducted by Maggie Hu, Assistant Professor of Real Estate and Finance at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management and the Department of Finance; Desmond Tsang, Associate Professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School; and PhD candidate Wayne Wan Xinwei at the University of Cambridge. The researchers theorised that overconfident CEOs could be beneficial to their firms during unprecedented times of crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic provided a perfect backdrop for them to test their theories. They found that companies with exceptionally confident CEOs performed better in the stock market during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Companies should think twice before turning down any overconfident CEO candidate because they can be highly beneficial in curbing stock price crashes at crisis times.” — Prof. Maggie Hu

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unrivalled level of uncertainty to our world. It has also become a test for CEOs in whether they can keep their companies intact,” Prof. Tsang says. “We found that overconfident CEOs actually provided strong leadership and kept both their employees and investors positive during a crisis.”

Overconfidence and Abnormal Returns

Using data from the U.S., the research team looked at companies’ stock market performance from January 22, 2019, to March 23, 2020. Only companies with the same CEOs since 2018 were included in their sample to control for any possible haphazard performance of newly appointed CEOs.

The researchers measured the level of CEO overconfidence by investigating CEOs’ options holdings. As senior managers, CEOs typically are vested in their companies’ stock options which they can exercise anytime. A CEO is considered more confident by researchers if they are willing to wait for a later date to exercise their stock options, as it may mean the CEO is confident enough to seek a higher payoff somewhere down the line.


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