Phil Town responded a while back to one of my recent posts with this observation:
...the idea that the shareholders are not real owners is ridiculous.
Query: How do you own the a legal fiction? Ownership implies a thing capable of being owned. To be sure, we often talk about the corporation as though it were such a thing, but when we do so we engage in reification. While it may be necessary to reify the corporation for semantic convenience, it can mislead. Conceptually, the corporation is not a thing, but rather simply a set of contracts between various stakeholders pursuant to which services are provided and rights with respect to a set of assets are allocated.
Because shareholders are simply one of the inputs bound together by this web of voluntary agreements, ownership is not a meaningful concept in nexus of contracts theory. Someone owns each input, but no one owns the totality. Instead, the corporation is an aggregation of people bound together by a complex web of contractual relationships.
As I explain in detail in my article The Board of Directors as Nexus of Contracts, the shareholders' contract with the firm has some ownership-like features, including the right to vote and the fiduciary obligations of directors and officers.
Even so, however, shareholders lack most of the incidents of ownership, which we might define as the rights to possess, use, and manage corporate assets, and the rights to corporate income and assets. For example, shareholders have no right to use or possess corporate property. Cf. W. Clay Jackson Enterprises, Inc. v. Greyhound Leasing and Financial Corp., 463 F. Supp. 666, 670 (D. P.R. 1979) (stating that “even a sole shareholder has no independent right which is violated by trespass upon or conversion of the corporation’s property”). Management rights, of course, are assigned by statute solely to the board of directors and those officers to whom the board properly delegates such authority. Indeed, to the extent that possessory and control rights are the indicia of a property right, the board is a better candidate for identification as the corporation’s owner than are the shareholders. As an early New York opinion put it, “the directors in the performance of their duty possess [the corporation’s property], and act in every way as if they owned it.” Manson v. Curtis, 119 N.E. 559, 562 (N.Y. 1918).
This remains true even if a single shareholder (or cohesive group) owns a majority of the corporation's voting stock. To be sure, ownership of such a control block gives shareholders substantial de facto control by virtue of their ability to elect and remove directors, yet this still does not confer either possessory or management rights on such shareholders. Indeed, an effort by such a shareholder to exercise such rights might well constitute a breach of fiduciary duty by the controlling shareholder. In appropriate instances of such misconduct by a controlling shareholder, the board may well have a fiduciary duty to the minority to take steps to dilute the majority shareholder's control (as by issuing more stock). See, e.g., Delaware Chancellor Allen's opinion in Mendell v. Carroll, 651 A.2d 297, 306 (Del. Ch. 1994), in which he suggested that the board of directors could "deploy corporate power against the majority stockholders" to prevent "a threatened serious breach of fiduciary duty by the controlling stock." Granted, as I have observed elsewhere on this blog, "corporate law is far more tolerant of hegemony than constitutional law," but Allen's dicta would make no sense if majority voting control equalled ownership.
Let me offer another illustration. As I discuss in my article Unocal at 20, if shareholders own the corporation, the board of directors of a target corporation would have no proper role in reponding to a tender offer. The shareholders' decision to tender their shares to the bidder would no more concern the institutional responsibilities or prerogatives of the board than would the shareholders' decision to sell their shares on the open market or, for that matter, to sell their homes. Both stock and a home would be treated as species of private property freely alienable by their owners. Yet, as we all know, corporate law confers an effective gatekeeping function on the target's board of directors by allowing them to deploy potent takeover defenses.
In discussing corporations, it is easy to lose sight of the overriding fact—that firms are nothing more than groups of people. We often find ourselves using jargon like owners, monitors, team members, agent, principal, partner, manager, employee, and shareholder. We also often find ourselves engaged in a form of reification—treating firms as though they were things having an existence separate from the people who comprise them—when we say things like “General Motors did so and so.” General Motors is a firm; it is pure fiction to say General Motors did anything. Reification is often useful, or even necessary, because it permits us to utilize a form of shorthand—it is easier to say General Motors did so and so than to attempt in conversation to describe the complex process which actually may have taken place. Indeed, it is very difficult to think about large firms without reifying them. Reification, however, can be dangerous. It becomes easy to lose sight of the fact that firms aren't things, they are simply a group of people for whom the law has provided an off-the-rack relationship we call the corporation. There simply is nothing there that can be owned.