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Value Maximization, Stakeholder Theory, and the Corporate Objective Function


Michael C. Jensen


Harvard Business School; Social Science Electronic Publishing (SSEP), Inc.; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

October 2001

Tuck Business School Working Paper No. 01-09; Harvard NOM Research Paper No. 01-01; Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 00-058

Abstract:     
This paper examines the role of the corporate objective function in corporate productivity and efficiency, social welfare, and the accountability of managers and directors. I argue that since it is logically impossible to maximize in more than one dimension, purposeful behavior requires a single valued objective function. Two hundred years of work in economics and finance implies that in the absence of externalities and monopoly (and when all goods are priced), social welfare is maximized when each firm in an economy maximizes its total market value. Total value is not just the value of the equity but also includes the market values of all other financial claims including debt, preferred stock, and warrants.

In sharp contrast stakeholder theory, argues that managers should make decisions so as to take account of the interests of all stakeholders in a firm (including not only financial claimants, but also employees, customers, communities, governmental officials, and under some interpretations the environment, terrorists, and blackmailers). Because the advocates of stakeholder theory refuse to specify how to make the necessary tradeoffs among these competing interests they leave managers with a theory that makes it impossible for them to make purposeful decisions. With no way to keep score, stakeholder theory makes managers unaccountable for their actions. It seems clear that such a theory can be attractive to the self interest of managers and directors.

Creating value takes more than acceptance of value maximization as the organizational objective. As a statement of corporate purpose or vision, value maximization is not likely to tap into the energy and enthusiasm of employees and managers to create value. Seen in this light, change in long-term market value becomes the scorecard that managers, directors, and others use to assess success or failure of the organization. The choice of value maximization as the corporate scorecard must be complemented by a corporate vision, strategy and tactics that unite participants in the organization in its struggle for dominance in its competitive arena.

A firm cannot maximize value if it ignores the interest of its stakeholders. I offer a proposal to clarify what I believe is the proper relation between value maximization and stakeholder theory. I call it enlightened value maximization, and it is identical to what I call enlightened stakeholder theory. Enlightened value maximization utilizes much of the structure of stakeholder theory but accepts maximization of the long run value of the firm as the criterion for making the requisite tradeoffs among its stakeholders. Managers, directors, strategists, and management scientists can benefit from enlightened stakeholder theory. Enlightened stakeholder theory specifies long-term value maximization or value seeking as the firm?s objective and therefore solves the problems that arise from the multiple objectives that accompany traditional stakeholder theory.

I also discuss the Balanced Scorecard, the managerial equivalent of stakeholder theory. The same conclusions hold. Balanced Scorecard theory is flawed because it presents managers with a scorecard which gives no score--that is, no single-valued measure of how they have performed. Thus managers evaluated with such a system (which can easily have two dozen measures and provides no information on the tradeoffs between them) have no way to make principled or purposeful decisions. The solution is to define a true (single dimensional) score for measuring performance for the organization or division (and it must be consistent with the organization's strategy). Given this we then encourage managers to use measures of the drivers of performance to understand better how to maximize their score. And as long as their score is defined properly, (and for lower levels in the organization it will generally not be value) this will enhance their contribution to the firm.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 17

Keywords: Value Maximization, Stakeholder Theory, Balanced Scorecard, Multiple Objectives, Social Welfare, Social Responsibility, Corporate Objective Function, Corporate Purpose, Tradeoffs, Corporate Governance, Strategy, Special Interest Groups, Social Responsibility.

JEL Classification: G30, G34, L21, M14

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Date posted: April 11, 2000  

Suggested Citation

Jensen, Michael C., Value Maximization, Stakeholder Theory, and the Corporate Objective Function (October 2001). Unfolding Stakeholder Thinking, eds. J. Andriof, et al, (Greenleaf Publishing, 2002). Also published in JACF, V. 14, N. 3, 2001, European Financial Management Review, N. 7, 2001 and in Breaking the Code of Change, M. Beer and N. Norhia, eds, HBS Press, 2000.. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=220671 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.220671

Contact Information

Michael C. Jensen (Contact Author)
Harvard Business School ( email )
Soldiers Field
Negotiations, Organizations & Markets
Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-510-3363 (Phone)
305-675-3166 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://drfd.hbs.edu/fit/public/facultyInfo.do?facInfo=ovr&facId=6484
Social Science Electronic Publishing (SSEP), Inc. ( email )
7858 Sanderling Road
Sarasota, FL 34242
United States
617-510-3363 (Phone)
305 675-3166 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://ssrn.com/author=9

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )
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Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )
c/o ECARES ULB CP 114
B-1050 Brussels
Belgium
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