Bob Monks is one of the long-time warriors in the battle for corporate governance reform. Ever since creating ISS a long time ago, Bob has been on the front lines to get corporate governance even considered when the need for some type of market reform seemed necessary. That's why I find his recent piece where he asks " What does it mean to be a shareholder or owner in 2011?" so interesting. Under that umbrella question, he also asks these four questions:1. What do owner and shareholder mean in regards to corporations and governance?
2. Can we lump all stock owners together or do we need multiple classes of stock to accommodate owners with different levels of interest and participation?
3. To whom does management owe fiduciary duty when considering the interest of owners? Does having one class of ownership work in management's favor because it keeps shareholders from ever truly working together to enact change?
4. How can you have "shareholder responsibility" when there is no possibility of shareholders having a common interest and working together. Because there are today so many different classes and categories of shareholders - arbs, derivatives, borrowed stock, etc - that common purpose is impossible.
The middle two questions are very thought provoking and deserve extended analysis at some point in the future. As for numbers 1 and 4, however, they are old bugbears here at PB.com.
How Many Times Must I Say It? Shareholder Do Not Own the Corporation!
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 haveobserved 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.
Shareholder Activism and Heterogeneity
It's good to see long time shareholder activist Bob Monks has realized that shareholders are heterogenous. But does he realize the extent to which that observation undercuts the case for shareholder activism?
As my colleague Iman Anabtawi observed: “On close analysis, shareholder interests look highly fragmented.” Iman Anabtawi, Some Skepticism About Increasing Shareholder Power 4 (unpublished manuscript on file with author). She documents divergences among investors along multiple fault lines: short-term versus long-term, diversified versus undiversified, inside versus outside, social versus economic, and hedged versus unhedged. Shareholder investment time horizons are likely to vary from short-term speculation to long-term buy-and-hold strategies, for example, which in turn is likely to result in disagreements about corporate strategy. Even more prosaically, shareholders in different tax brackets are likely to disagree about such matters as dividend policy, as are shareholders who disagree about the merits of allowing management to invest the firm’s free cash flow in new projects.
Consequently, as I explain in The Case for Limited Shareholder Voting Rights, it is hardly surprising that the modern public corporation’s decision-making structure precisely fits Kenneth Arrow’s model of an authority-based decision-making system. Overcoming the collective action problems that prevent meaningful shareholder involvement would be difficult and costly, of course. Even if one could do so, moreover, shareholders lack both the information and the incentives necessary to make sound decisions on either operational or policy questions. Under these conditions, it is “cheaper and more efficient to transmit all the pieces of information to a central place” and to have the central office “make the collective choice and transmit it rather than retransmit all the information on which the decision is based.” Accordingly, shareholders will prefer to irrevocably delegate decision-making authority to some smaller group.
What is that group? The Delaware code, like the corporate law of virtually every other state, gives us a clear answer: the corporation’s “business and affairs ... shall be managed by or under the direction of the board of directors.” Hence, as an early New York decision put it, the board’s powers are “original and undelegated.” Manson v. Curtis, 119 N.E. 559, 562 (N.Y. 1918).
The central argument against shareholder activism thus becomes apparent. Active investor involvement in corporate decision making seems likely to disrupt the very mechanism that makes the public corporation practicable; namely, the centralization of essentially non-reviewable decision-making authority in the board of directors. The chief economic virtue of the public corporation is not that it permits the aggregation of large capital pools, as some have suggested, but rather that it provides a hierarchical decision-making structure well-suited to the problem of operating a large business enterprise with numerous employees, managers, shareholders, creditors, and other inputs. In such a firm, someone must be in charge: “Under conditions of widely dispersed information and the need for speed in decisions, authoritative control at the tactical level is essential for success.” While some argue that shareholder activism “differs, at least in form, from completely shifting authority from managers to” investors, it is in fact a difference in form only. Shareholder activism necessarily contemplates that institutions will review management decisions, step in when management performance falters, and exercise voting control to effect a change in policy or personnel. For the reasons identified above, giving investors this power of review differs little from giving them the power to make management decisions in the first place. Even though investors probably would not micromanage portfolio corporations, vesting them with the power to review board decisions inevitably shifts some portion of the board’s authority to them. This remains true even if only major decisions of A are reviewed by B. The board directors of General Motors, after all, no more micromanages GM than would a coalition of activist institutional investors, but it is still in charge.