Shareholder Activism in the Obama Era
20 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2009
Date Written: July 22, 2009
The financial crisis of 2008 and the ascendancy of the Democratic Party in Washington have created an environment in which proponents of expanded shareholder corporate governance rights are making considerable progress. Even before the crisis hit, of course, there had been a number of efforts to extend the shareholder franchise, principally so as to empower institutional investors. The crisis, however, has given them new momentum.
The logic behind the shareholder empowerment project is that institutional investors will behave quite differently than dispersed individual investors. Because they own large blocks, and have an incentive to develop specialized expertise in making and monitoring investments, institutional investors could play a far more active role in corporate governance than dispersed individual investors traditionally have done. Institutional investors holding large blocks thus have more power to hold management accountable for actions that do not promote shareholder welfare. Their greater access to firm information, coupled with their concentrated voting power, might enable them to more actively monitor the firm’s performance and to make changes in the board’s composition when performance lagged.
In fact, however, institutional investor activism is rare and limited primarily to union and state or local public employee pensions. As a result, institutional investor activism has not - and cannot - prove a panacea for the pathologies of corporate governance. Activist investors pursue agendas not shared by and often in conflict with those of passive investors. Activism by investors undermines the role of the board of directors as a central decision-making body, thereby making corporate governance less effective. Finally, relying on activist institutional investors will not solve the principal-agent problem inherent in corporate governance but rather will merely shift the locus of that problem.
Keywords: corporate governance, corporation law, shareholders, voting rights, institutional investors
JEL Classification: K22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation