The Power of the Narrative in Corporate Lawmaking
49 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2020 Last revised: 17 Nov 2020
Date Written: August 24, 2020
The notion of stock-market-driven short-termism relentlessly whittling away at the American economy’s foundations is widely accepted and highly salient. Presidential candidates state as much. Senators introduce bills assuming as much. Corporate interests argue as much to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the corporate law courts. Yet the academic evidence as to the problem’s severity is no more than mixed. What explains this gap between widespread belief and weak evidence?
This Article explores the role of narrative power. Some ideas are better at being popular than others. The concept of pernicious stock market short-termism has three strong qualities that make its narrative power formidable: (1) connotation — the words themselves tell us what is good (reliable long-term commitment) and what is not (unreliable short-termism); (2) category confusion — disparate types of corporate misbehavior, such as environmental degradation and employee mistreatment, are mislabeled as being truly and primarily short-termism phenomena emanating from truncated corporate time horizons (when they in fact emanate from other misalignments), thereby making us view short-termism as even more rampant and pernicious than it is; and (3) confirmation — the idea is regularly repeated, because it is easy to communicate, and often boosted by powerful agenda-setters who benefit from its repetition.
The Article then highlights the real-world implications of narrative power — powerful narratives can be more certain than the underlying evidence, thereby leading policymakers astray. For example, a favorite remedy for stock-market-driven short-termism is to insulate executives from stock market pressure. If lawmakers believe that short-termism is a primary cause of environmental degradation, anemic research and development, employee mistreatment, and financial crises — as many do — then they are likely to focus on further insulating corporate executives from stock-market accountability. Doing so may, however, do little to alleviate the underlying problems, which would be better handled by, say, stronger environmental regulation and more astute financial regulation. Powerful narratives can drive out good policymaking.
Keywords: corporate governance, short-termism, hedge funds, shareholder activism, behavioral economics, securities regulation, agency costs, research and development, narrative, political economy, corporate interests
JEL Classification: D72, E71, G18, G34, G38, G41, K22, L21
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation