The False Dichotomy of Corporate Governance Platitudes
Journal of Corporation Law, 2020
47 Pages Posted: 5 Aug 2020
Date Written: July 29, 2020
In 2019, the Business Roundtable amended its principles of corporate governance, deleting references to the primary purpose of the corporation being to serve the shareholders. In doing so, it renewed the “shareholder vs. stakeholder” debate among academic theorists and politicians. The thesis here is that the zero-sum positions of the contending positions are a false dichotomy, failing to capture the complexity of the corporate management game as it is actually played. Sweeping and absolutist statements of the primary purpose of the corporation are based on arid thought experiments and idiosyncratic cases in which corporate leaders have managed to be either bullheaded or ill-advised. In the real world, management regularly commits itself to multiple competing constituencies, including the shareholders.
There are three arguments. The first is from reality, borne out by a survey of pre-amendment CEO annual report letters to shareholders (2017) and post-amendment responses (2020) to the COVID-19 pandemic. The second is from economics. Neo-classical economic theory supporting the doctrine is misplaced; transaction cost analysis under the New Institution Economics does a far better job of explaining the primacy of wide corporate discretion in allocating surplus among the corporate constituencies. The third is from jurisprudence. Doctrinal dicta like “corporations exist primary to maximize shareholder wealth” are not so much right or wrong as meaningless. Rather, the business judgment rule, which justifies almost any allocation of corporate surplus having an articulable connection to the best interest of the enterprise, subsumes all other platitudes posing as rules of law.
Keywords: corporate governance, annual reports, COVID-19, coronavirus, Business Roundtable, shareholder wealth maximization, stakeholder, constituencies, agency theory, nexus of contracts, transaction cost economics, dicta, jurisprudence, trolley problem
JEL Classification: D02, K22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation