Making Sense of The Business Roundtable’s Reversal on Corporate Purpose

56 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2020

See all articles by Stephen M. Bainbridge

Stephen M. Bainbridge

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: July 30, 2020

Abstract

In August 2019, the Business Roundtable (BRT) issued a statement on the purpose of the corporation in which it reversed a longstanding position. Since 1978, the BRT has periodically issued statements on Principles of Corporate Governance, which purport to summarize law and best practice in this area. Since 1997, all versions of those statements had embraced the view that corporations exist primarily to serve their shareholders. In contrast, the 2019 version contains a much broader conception of corporate purpose, which posits that corporations should “commit to deliver[ing] value to all of” the corporation’s stakeholders.

Obviously, the BRT cannot unilaterally change the law. As this article explains, the law of corporate purpose remains that directors have an obligation to put shareholder interests ahead of those of other stakeholders and maximize profits for those shareholders.

What people do matters more than what they say. To date, the evidence is most BRT members remain committed to shareholder value maximization, despite their recent rhetoric to the contrary. This should not be surprising. The incentive structure faced by directors and managers still skews in favor of shareholders.

Why then did the BRT shift position? This article suggests two possibilities. First, the members may be engaged in puffery intended to attract certain stakeholders for the long-term benefit of the shareholders. Specifically, they may be looking to lower the company’s cost of labor by responding to perceived shifts in labor, lower the cost of capital by attracting certain investors, and increase sales by responding to perceived shifts in consumer market sentiment. They may also be trying to fend off regulation by progressive politicians. Second, some BRT members may crave a return to the days of imperial CEOS.

This article is a response to Jeffrey M. Lipshaw, The False Dichotomy of Corporate Governance Platitudes, Journal of Corporation Law (forthcoming).

Keywords: corporate law, corporate social responsibility, ESG, board of directors, corporate purpose

JEL Classification: K22, M14

Suggested Citation

Bainbridge, Stephen Mark, Making Sense of The Business Roundtable’s Reversal on Corporate Purpose (July 30, 2020). UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 20-03, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3664078

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