Dispersed Ownership: The Theories, the Evidence, and the Enduring Tension Between 'Lumpers' and 'Splitters'

76 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2010 Last revised: 22 Jan 2019

See all articles by John C. Coffee

John C. Coffee

Columbia Law School; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI); American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Date Written: February 2, 2010


From a global perspective, the single most noticeable fact about corporate governance is the radical dichotomy between dispersed ownership and concentrated ownerships systems, with the latter being much in the majority. Several prominent academics have offered grand theories to explain when dispersed share ownership arises, which have emphasized either legal or political preconditions. Nonetheless, mounting evidence suggests that these theories are overgeneralized and, in particular, do not account for the appearance (to varying degrees) of dispersed ownership in all securities markets. This article concludes that neither legal rules nor political conditions can adequately explain the spread of dispersed ownership across both the U.S. and the U.K., which developments occurred at different times, in different political and legal environments, and were precipitated by different exogenous factors. Instead, this article offers an alternative and simpler explanation: dispersed ownership arises principally from private ordering, with legal rules playing a minor role at best. Intermediaries - investment bankers, stock exchanges, and others - fill the void created by legal shortcomings and create bonding mechanisms that allow dispersed ownership to spread beyond the limited geographic area in which the founding entrepreneur is known and trusted. This process has two steps: (1) the appearance of numerous minority shareholders, gradually spreading across a broad geographic area, and (2) the break-up of controlling blocks. At the latter stage, historical contingencies have played a major role. In the United States, the merger boom of the 1890s played a critical role, and in the U.K. punitive tax changes compelled controlling shareholders to sell. The only common denominators across the two countries were: (1) political changes followed once share ownership dispersion was achieved, as law followed the market; and (2) private ordering and self-regulation encouraged minority owners to invest and protected their voting and control rights. This may suggest that in decentralized political economies (in which political and economic power tend to be separated and in which self-regulation is more common, such as the U.S. and the U.K.), dispersed ownership is more likely to arise, but it can arise for individual firms through private ordering in any market.

Suggested Citation

Coffee, John C., Dispersed Ownership: The Theories, the Evidence, and the Enduring Tension Between 'Lumpers' and 'Splitters' (February 2, 2010). Columbia Law and Economics Working Paper No. 363, ECGI - Law Working Paper No. 144/2010, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1532922 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1532922

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