Preserving the Corporate Superego in a Time of Activism: An Essay on Ethics and Economics

47 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2016

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: September 16, 2016


This essay focuses on the impact of recent changes in corporate governance on ethical behavior within the public corporation. It argues that a style of corporate behavior — one characterized by a risk tolerant, even reckless, pursuit of short-term profits and a disregard for the interests of non-shareholder constituencies — is attributable in significant part to recent changes in corporate governance, including the rise of hedge fund activism, greater use of incentive compensation, and the appearance of blockholder directors. It then surveys feasible responses intended to strengthen the role of the boards as the corporation’s conscience and superego. Given the difficulty of reform, it predicts that the problems identified are likely to get worse before they get better.

Keywords: activists, blockholder director, CEO compensation, corporate social responsibility, hedge funds, incentive compensation, wolfpack

JEL Classification: G01, G10, G30, G32

Suggested Citation

Coffee, John C., Preserving the Corporate Superego in a Time of Activism: An Essay on Ethics and Economics (September 16, 2016). Available at SSRN: or

John C. Coffee (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

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European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
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American Academy of Arts & Sciences

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Cambridge, MA 02138
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