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How the cult of shareholder value wrecked American business

Stashed in: Economics!, Culture, Boards, Lawyers!, Values, America!, Economics

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Let’s start with some history.

The earliest American corporations were generally chartered for public purposes, such as building canals or transit systems, and well into the 1960s were widely viewed as owing something in return to a society that provided them with legal protections and an economic ecosystem in which to grow and thrive. In 1953, carmaker Charlie Wilson famously spoke for a generation of chief executives about the link between business and the larger society when he told a Senate committee that “what is good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

There are no statutes that put the shareholder at the top of the corporate priority list. In most states, corporations can be formed for any lawful purpose. Cornell University law professor Lynn Stout has been looking for years for a corporate charter that even mentions maximizing profits or share price. She hasn’t found one.

Nor does the law require, as many believe, that executives and directors owe a special fiduciary duty to shareholders. The fiduciary duty, in fact, is owed simply to the corporation, which is owned by no one, just as you and I are owned by no one — we are all “persons” in the eyes of the law. Shareholders, however, have a contractual claim to the “residual value” of the corporation once all its other obligations have been satisfied — and even then directors are given wide latitude to make whatever use of that residual value they choose, as long they’re not stealing it for themselves.

It is true that only shareholders have the power to select a corporation’s directors. But it requires the peculiar imagination of a corporate lawyer to leap from that to a broad mandate that those directors have a duty to put the interests of shareholders above all others.

That is an excellent point. Boards set the values of their companies, not shareholders.

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