The Corporation's Intrinsic Attributes
Understanding the Company: Corporate Governance and Theory, Choudhury & Martin Petrin eds., Cambridge University Press, 2016)
29 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2016
Date Written: February 26, 2016
Numerous treatises, casebooks, and other resources commonly present concise lists of attributes said to be intrinsic to the modern corporation and/or essential to its economic utility. Such descriptions of the corporate form often constitute introductory matter, conditioning how students, professionals, and public officials alike approach corporate law by presenting a straightforward framework to distinguish the corporate form from other types of business entities. There are two significant problems with such frameworks, however, from a pedagogic perspective. First, these frameworks describe the corporation by reference to purportedly fixed intrinsic attributes, conflicting sharply with the flux and dynamism that have in fact characterized the history of corporate law. Second, these frameworks differ markedly from each other in how they characterize the corporation's attributes, each embodying a contestable perspective on the nature of the corporate form.
The diversity of perspectives that such inquiry reveals calls into question the degree to which we can validly deduce a single correct or optimal division of power between boards and shareholders, degree of regard for shareholder interests, and/or degree of liability exposure for boards and shareholders, based exclusively on premises purportedly intrinsic to corporate law itself - that is, without express appeal to external policy considerations and related regulatory fields. These matters map onto three core issues of corporate law and governance - power, purpose, and risk-taking, respectively - and the inability to resolve them by reference to the corporation's purportedly intrinsic features suggests that re-conceptualizing the corporate form might facilitate more effective assessment of its capabilities.
This chapter undertakes that project. Section I begins with an historical discussion of the corporation's emergence and early deployment for business in the United Kingdom and the United States. Section II turns to various contemporary descriptions of the corporation's intrinsic attributes presented in modern reference materials, exploring their commonalities, differences, and theoretical implications. Section III explores the impossibility of resolving core issues of power, purpose, and risk-taking by reference to such conceptions of the corporate form, providing three US examples that map onto these respective issues - the scope of shareholders' bylaw authority, the degree of board discretion to consider non-shareholder interests in hostile takeovers, and the regulation of financial risk-taking following the recent crisis. Each illustrates the necessity of resort to political discourse - a reality underscored through comparison with the United Kingdom, which reveals substantial divergence on such issues notwithstanding broad similarities between the US and UK corporate governance regimes.
The chapter concludes, in Section IV, by proposing that we refrain from describing the corporate form by reference to purportedly fixed intrinsic attributes. I argue that it would pay to re-conceptualize the modern corporation by reference to the tools it offers, and how those tools can be deployed - a series of governance "levers," I suggest, that can be adjusted and calibrated in various ways to pursue a broad range of governance-related goals.
Keywords: corporate law, corporate governance, corporate attributes, limited liability, business judgment rule, bylaws, hostile takeovers, financial firms, United Kingdom
JEL Classification: K22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation