The Pension System and the Rise of Shareholder Primacy

44 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2012 Last revised: 22 Jul 2012

See all articles by Martin Gelter

Martin Gelter

Fordham University School of Law; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

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Date Written: June 7, 2012


This article explores the influence of the pension system on corporate governance, which has so far received little attention in the corporate law literature. While the shareholder-centric view of corporate governance is strong today, this is a relatively recent development. “Managerial capitalism” began to give way to shareholder capitalism over the past three decades. I argue that changes in the pension system, specifically the shift from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans that began in the 1970s, have been a major force pushing the corporate governance system toward shareholder primacy. While in traditional pension plans, workers depended primarily on their employer’s ability to fund pensions, in today’s system retirement benefits strongly depend on capital markets. Shareholder wealth thus became more important for larger segments of society, and pro-shareholder policies became more important relative to pro-labor policies strengthening employees’ position vis-à-vis their employer. Consequently, shareholder primacy became the dominant factor in corporate governance debates. Managers today claim to focus on this objective and are less well positioned to take the interests of their firm’s employees or other groups into account. The political economy of corporate governance underwent a seismic shift. While it is not clear whether shareholders truly benefit from most reforms, these have been largely supported by the center-left given their apparent beneficial effects for shareholders and consequently the middle class. For the same reason, unions have been among the most eager proponents of shareholder activism.

Keywords: defined benefit plans, defined contributions plans, Social Security, PAYGO, unions, human capital, firm-specific investment, corporate governance, political economy, shareholder wealth maximization, stakeholders, corporate social responsibility

JEL Classification: G23, G30, H55, J33, J41, J53, J62, K22, K31, M12, M52, P16

Suggested Citation

Gelter, Martin, The Pension System and the Rise of Shareholder Primacy (June 7, 2012). Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2079607, ECGI - Law Working Paper No. 191/2012, Available at SSRN: or

Martin Gelter (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

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European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)


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